Concern among workers and unions grows as COVID-19 spreads in factories

welding worker

A deterioration in the situation of workers in Turkey, a country already notorious for a large number of fatalities in work-related accidents, is causing concern among unions and workers’ rights organizations amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to a report by Turkey’s Health and Safety Labor Watch, in the first half of 2020, 1,098 workers died in occupational accidents. The numbers have gone up in comparison to 2019, during which 1,004 workers died in the first half of the year. The deaths are concentrated in Turkey’s industrial cities of Sakarya, Istanbul, Kocaeli and Bursa.

Some of the main causes of work-related fatalities are crush syndrome, traffic-related incidents and falls, the report revealed. However, deaths due to COVID-19 have recently become worryingly predominant in factories. Two factories in particular stand out when it comes to COVID-19 contagion and consequent deaths.

One of the most salient of cases is the Vestel factory, which is located in the southern city of Mersin and which produces domestic appliances. There is a lack of clarity surrounding exactly how many workers have contracted the coronavirus in the factory. Workers claim that seven of their colleagues have died of COVID-19, while the company has publicly announced that only two workers have succumbed to the virus. “We have 17,000 workers in nine factories. Among these workers, 2 percent have been diagnosed with COVID-19. Two workers have died due to the virus,” Vestel said in a statement

During a protest in front of the company’s headquarters in Istanbul, unions pointed out that workers in Vestel factories are being forced to work without any preventative measures. They added that the company’s only concern was increasing production rather than ensuring a safe work environment for their employees. The Confederation of Revolutionary Workers Unions (DİSK), one of the biggest trade unions in Turkey, has stated that there are about a thousand COVID-19 cases among Vestel workers in Manisa, which has not prompted the company to halt production. The unions are demanding the immediate closure of the factories, stating that “human lives are more important than fridges.”

One anonymous company worker who was interviewed by the Evrensel daily explains that he has been with Vestel for seven years and that long working hours, a heavy workload and insufficient safety measures have caused an exponential growth of COVID-19 cases in the factory.

“It would not be an exaggeration to say that the majority of workers have contracted the virus. From the outside, everything seems to be fine. The factory appears to be following the regulations as there are notices on the walls about social distancing, and our temperatures are checked before we enter the building. The factory has a garden, shuttles and special clothes for workers. Everything looks so perfect, you would think the virus can’t enter the building. But this is just for appearance’s sake. The reality is very different. During the crisis, we worked longer than before. We had to work, or we would have been laid off. The managers and foremen are silent. According to them, the problem lies with the workers who cannot adequately protect themselves. They believe it is our responsibility to prevent the virus from spreading in the factory. We demanded routine testing, but the company refused. When we expressed our concerns, they told us to work harder. This is not a joke, and they have increased our working time by four hours every shift. They just want us to forget about the virus and continue with our work.”

The anonymous worker also says he is currently in quarantine. However, once his 14-day isolation is over, he will go back to working in the factory. “What I hear most from my colleagues are stories about people from different departments dying, or about people who are in the hospital. It’s like a nightmare. I hear about the death of people I see every day, which has become a normal occurrence at Vestel. How can it be otherwise, when you have more than 15,000 people working in the same facility and a highly contagious virus? Imagine how much the virus is spreading in the general population, considering that these workers live in different municipalities. They have families and go about their daily business,” he adds.

The workers at Vestel are disturbed that they are being blamed by the company’s department heads and foremen for bringing the virus into the factory. They claim the administration sees them as the cause of the outbreak instead of taking tangible steps to prevent the virus from spreading among the workers. They argue that it is they, the workers, who are being sent to possible death, adding: “We don’t think the media coverage of this situation will have any impact on our predicament. A company like Vestel produces domestic appliances all year round. They are not likely to slow down the assembly lines. If there are no legal requirements to initiate an inspection, then there will be no effective solution.”

The impact of COVID-19 on workers’ health is not limited to Vestel. Unions point to the Dardanel fish company in the northwestern province of Çanakkale as another impacted factory. Dardanel produces canned fish such as tuna and has implemented a “closed-circuit” work system. They adopted the system after 40 of their employees contracted the virus, and it means that the employees work during the day and stay in the factory’s quarantine dormitories at night. The system was put into place after production started slowing due to several workers being sent home with COVID-19.

More than 1,000 employees work together regardless of whether they are infected with COVID-19 and stay in the same dormitories without many preventative measures, according to a labor union, the city and the workers, Evrensel reported. Significantly, Seyit Aslan, chair of the Gida-İş union, told the Bianet news website that 56 of the Dardanel factory’s workers were receiving treatment for COVID-19 at a hospital. He added that as of August 2, 153 workers had been diagnosed with the virus. However, the workers who were asymptomatic or did not have severe symptoms returned to work. “The governor’s office, a committee for public health and the municipality confirm the number of infections. They are critical of the conditions at the factory but have not yet made a public statement,” said Aslan

He pointed out that the factories are blaming the workers for bringing the virus into the factory on top of separating them from their families and loved ones. He describes the situation as a serious attack on the well-being of workers and their rights.

One of the issues that the closed-circuit system has brought about is that the workers have to put in compulsory overtime of around 90 to 100 hours a month. They do not get paid for the overtime and risk losing their jobs if they refuse to work.

According to Evrensel, female workers are doubly burdened by this system, as they also have domestic responsibilities, which leaves them no time to sleep or rest. This is in stark contradiction to the company’s advertisement for March 8, International Women’s Day, which says, “It is the labor of our 1,000 women workers that has made us what we are.” According to the workers, they are more like hostages than valued workers as they have to do everything the company wants and have little means of objecting. They claim they are expected to assume the risk of occupational hazards. They describe being under the constant watch of foremen with limited freedom and cannot even use the toilet regularly. The unions continue to advocate on their behalf.

Furthermore, Turkish women have borne the brunt of unpaid work during the coronavirus outbreak. A survey conducted by the  United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) shows that Turkish women did four times as much household and childcare work as men during a lockdown aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus.

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