x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Turks go hungry as crisis deepens

For people like Abdullah Kurt, the global financial crisis is not something that is happening far away on Wall Street.

Abdullah Kurt, who lost his factory job last month, says he has no idea how to feed his three children.
Abdullah Kurt, who lost his factory job last month, says he has no idea how to feed his three children.

ISTANBUL // For people like Abdullah Kurt, the global financial crisis is not something that is happening far away on Wall Street, but a very real and present danger. It cost him his job in Turkey's textile industry and makes him wonder how long he will be able to feed his children. Mr Kurt, 38, was fired by his employer last month when the entrepreneur closed down his yarn factory in Istanbul, one of thousands of companies that have folded in recent months because of a slump in demand and a reluctance of banks to lend money. Together with him, 95 other people lost their jobs, Mr Kurt said during a visit to the headquarters of the textile workers' trade union, Disk-Tekstil, of which he is a member. "Everybody was talking about the crisis," he said about himself and his former colleagues in the factory. "But nobody knew how fast everything would happen." A wave of layoffs in Turkey's key industries has destroyed hundreds of thousands of jobs in the past year. The trend could spell problems for the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, and is already fanning fears of widening poverty in a country where state support for the unemployed is weak. Turkey's new official unemployment rate, announced last week, climbed to 9.8 per cent in August, which means that about 210,000 jobs were lost in the 12 months before and that 2.4 million people are out of work. Critics say the real figure is much higher. The state pays Mr Kurt 250 lira (Dh550) in unemployment benefits every month, but as the rent for his apartment is 220 lira, he has been relying on severance pay from his former company that brings him an additional 600 lira per month. However, the last instalment of severance pay will be paid out in January, and his unemployment benefit runs out two months later. Mr Kurt said he had no idea how to feed his three children, who are six, 12 and 14 years old and go to school. "I don't know what I will be doing in three months," he said. "You cannot look into the future." Trying to save as much money as possible, Mr Kurt is looking for a new job. "I eat nothing but a simit all day; I don't even have a tea," he said, referring to the cheap bread and sesame rings that are sold on the streets of every Turkish city. So far, he has found nothing. There may be jobs in Cerkezkoy, an industrial town outside Istanbul, he said. But the cost to go there and back every day would eat up a good part of his salary, which probably will not exceed the minimum wage of 450 lira a month. "Maybe I will have to sell lemons on the street," Mr Kurt said. On top of watching jobs disappear by the thousands, Turkish families have had to cope with a recent price rise for natural gas. A price hike for electricity is due on Jan 1. Mr Kurt said he was thinking about moving to the southern city of Gaziantep, from where his family came originally. "There, they pay only 400 lira, but rent and food would be much cheaper." Turks are hit with bad news from the economic and employment front almost daily. Press reports say Turkey's building sector, which employs millions of people and reached record growth rates of more than 20 per cent only two years ago, will shrink by one per cent this year. The car industry is also reported to be in trouble. In Zonguldak, on Turkey's poor Black Sea coast, a state-owned coal mining company organised a lottery after more than 35,000 people applied for 3,000 vacant jobs. The lucky ones, who had to pass a physical fitness test before being able to take part in the lottery, won a job that pays them 1,100 lira a month. "When you are unemployed, it is not a question of not going to the cinema or the theatre any more," said Ridvan Budak, the head of Disk-Tekstil. "It is a question of whether there is bread on the table." Mr Budak said 250,000 jobs were lost in the textile industry during the past 12 months. Just in the region of Thrace, Turkey's territorial foothold on the European continent, 180 factories had to close down. The official unemployment figures are too low because they count underemployed workers, especially in agriculture, as fully employed, Mr Budak said. Kesk, a trade union of public employees, estimates the real unemployment rate in Turkey is about 20 per cent, which would be about five million people. Rising unemployment and the economic crisis could make life difficult for Mr Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party, the ruling AKP. With local elections scheduled for March, most polls show a decline in support for the AKP. Business groups and critics in the press say Mr Erdogan's government has ignored the crisis. "Turks are very patient, but they tend to punish the government on election day," Mr Budak said. "This time, it is the AKP's turn to be punished." But Mr Kurt, who voted for the AKP in the last elections, said he would do so again. "Where I live, the AKP people come around to my house and ask how they can help me," he said. After one such recent visit, he was told that local authorities had arranged for a monthly subsidy of 50 lira to support school education of his six-year-old daughter. "There is no alternative," Mr Kurt said about the AKP. He has not given up hope that Mr Erdogan's party will turn the economy around so he will find a new job. "I vote for the party that gives me work." tseibert@thenational.ae