ISTANBUL // When Guldane Ciftci prepared to leave for work one Wednesday morning earlier this month, her mother told her to stay at home because of the torrential rain inundating Istanbul. "Mother, it's only my third day in the job," the young woman replied, before setting off for the Pameks textile factory in Ikitelli, an industrial district on the European side of the city. It was the last time Mrs Ciftci saw her daughter alive.
Ms Ciftci, 23, was one of seven female Pameks workers who drowned in a windowless cargo van in front of the factory building on the morning of September 9. A nearby brook turned into a raging river after heavy rains and broke down a wall next to the factory, sending huge amounts of water on to the square where the cargo van had just arrived after picking up Ms Ciftci and her co-workers. "The water came all of a sudden, I couldn't believe it," Gulsum Senkoglu, one of the workers in the van, told Turkish media afterwards. Ms Senkoglu was sitting in front, next to the driver, and managed to get out, as did the driver and two other women. But Ms Ciftci and six others, sitting in the back, were trapped by the rising water and drowned because there were no windows that could have served as emergency exits. One other woman, who was severely injured, died five days later, bringing the death toll to eight.
In total, 37 people died in several days of flooding in Istanbul in early September, when television images of desperate people clinging to buses engulfed by flood waters were shown around the world. In Turkey, the fate of the women in the service van received widespread attention. Critics say their death has thrown a spotlight on the Dickensian and often illegal working conditions for women in many Turkish businesses.
"This is a huge scandal," Selin Nakipoglu, a lawyer and member of the Istanbul Women's Platform, a pressure group, said in an interview yesterday. "You never hear that kind of thing from countries like France - why?" During a protest rally in front of the Pameks factory a week after the death of the workers, Ms Nakipoglu said local authorities closed their eyes to "slavery-like conditions" at work places.
News reports said the women at Pameks worked for up to 15 hours every day and up to seven days a week for the minimum monthly wage of 497 Lira (Dh 1,231) after tax. Ms Nakipoglu said many women do not complain about poor working conditions because they are afraid to lose their job in the midst of the current economic crisis. One female worker at Pameks told the Radikal newspaper that she had to work for as little as 25 Lira (Dh 62) a day. "There is work until 11 at night," the unnamed woman was quoted as saying. "If you don't stay, they say you don't have to bother to come back the next morning."
Activists say the fatal incident at Pameks was not the first of its kind in Turkey. In 2005, five female workers in a textile factory in Bursa, an industrial city south of Istanbul, were burnt to death when a fire broke out during the night shift in their factory. News reports said the factory owner had the building locked up to prevent the workers from leaving after their shift. Kazim Dogan, a leading member of the Textile Workers' Union, told Turkish media that working conditions in many factories in the country were unacceptable. "There is one toilet for 100 people," he said. "The workers' health is ignored. Work safety regulations are not implemented."
The textile industry, one of the most important sectors of the Turkish economy, has been plagued by a string of scandals recently. Earlier this year, the Turkish government banned the practice of sandblasting denim clothing in order to whiten it, after dozens of sandblasting workers died of a lung disease triggered by unhealthy working conditions in sweatshops employing the practice. Following the death of the women at Pameks, police arrested Cevdet Karahasanoglu, the owner of the company. He was charged with manslaughter and taken into custody along with another manager of the company. A civil case seeking financial compensation is also being prepared, Ms Nakipoglu said
Pameks said in a statement that the company had launched an internal investigation to find out why a cargo van not suitable for transporting people had been used to fetch the workers on the morning of September 9. The statement also appeared to lay part of the blame on the women themselves, by stressing that they refused to get out of the van shortly before the wall broke down because they saw the water on the square in front of the factory and did not want to get their feet wet. "They closed the doors" of the van, the statement said.
"That hurt very much," Ms Nakipoglu said about the company statement. "They sent a cargo van to save money." She said female workers were more likely to become victims because they were reluctant to speak up. "They did not complain, so they died," she said. firstname.lastname@example.org