Former union leader criticizes Turkish vocational schools for exploiting student labor 

Former union leader Feray Aytekin Aydoğan in a column for the Birgün daily criticized Turkish vocational schools for lax occupational safety measures and for exploiting their students’ labor.

According to regulations students attending secondary vocational education schools (MESEM) attend one day of school and work in the relevant industry the rest of the week. However, students say they work up to 10 hours a day for six days a week. Most of these students come from poor families and are paid less than the minimum wage for their labor. 

Many students have said they support their families with the money they earn and that they have no hope for a better future. 

There are currently more than 1 million students enrolled in MESEM, and according to Aydoğan instead of preparing students for work life, MESEM acts like a provider of cheap labor. “Those students who do not have the means to attend an academically prestigious public school or a private school end up going to vocational schools. Such vocational schools are located in industrial parks and serve to provide cheap labor. Furthermore, the government is working closely with companies and businessmen to consolidate this system,” she wrote.  

Aydoğan added that although students are required to attend school for part of their education, these schools do not have proper gyms, classrooms or conference rooms to support the physical and mental needs of their students. 

“MESEM is encouraging underage labor, and countless students that need to be in classrooms are currently in the labor force,” she said. 

Alarmingly, these students have been working in dangerous conditions and under lax occupational safety measures. Several MESEM students have died in workplace accidents, and authorities have not taken any measures to prevent such fatalities. 

“Twenty-one-year-old MESEM student Ömer was installing an air conditioner when he fell and died,” Aydoğan wrote. “Enes… Zeren… lives lost to cheap labor.”

In September 2023 Zekai Dikici, 16, died after falling from the fifth floor of a building. The young MESEM student was working on the building’s electrical system at the time of his death. It turned out that he had been working during his time off.

There are no recent studies on the number of occupational accidents concerning MESEM students, but a study in 2018 revealed that 19 percent of students experienced an accident in their workplace. The same study revealed that although regulations stipulated that students work in the industry for only four days a week, many students worked far longer and up to 11 hours a day.

A yearly report by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) on labor rights reveals that Turkey is one of the 10 worst countries in the world for working people.

The Health and Safety Labor Watch (İSİG) recorded nearly 2,000 fatal work-related accidents in 2023. 

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