Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Monday opened İstanbul’s third airport, which he says will become one of the largest in the world, while some of its workers are jailed and the rights of labors are being violated, said Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Thirty construction workers along with a union leader are in detention for protesting conditions at the airport construction site, while many other workers were fired.
“Behind the glass and steel of President Erdogan’s newest mega-project, 30 construction workers and a union leader are sitting in jail for protesting poor working conditions,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey director at Human Rights Watch. “The jailed workers should be freed, the criminal investigations against them and many others dropped, and workers unfairly fired for protesting should get their jobs back,” she added.
The project has been dogged by concerns about labor rights, environmental issues and Turkey’s weakening economy with protests held on Sept. 14 over poor working conditions and dozens of construction deaths.
A construction worker died on Sunday on site, just hours before the opening ceremony. Nihat Demir, head of a construction workers’ union, said the major cause of the accidents and deaths was the rush to meet President Erdoğan’s deadline.
“The airport has become a cemetery,” Demir told The Associated Press, describing the pressure to finish as relentless and blaming long working hours for leading to “carelessness, accidents and deaths.”
The worker, whose name has not been released, reportedly died in a fall. The latest accident follows the injury of two workers on Oct. 27 after an electrical panel exploded in one of the airport parking lots.
The airport construction has also been mired in controversy over environmental damage and accusations that a rush to meet the October 29 deadline has cost the lives of dozens, possibly hundreds, of workers.
The airport, which is yet to be officially named, is one of largest in the world and set to be fully functional over the next decade. It will have six runways and handle 200 million passengers a year when complete.
Meanwhile, union representatives told HRW that an unspecified number of workers who joined the protest were promptly dismissed from their jobs and that the airport construction site is being heavily policed to prevent any further demonstrations.
The protest began on September 14, 2018, when workers put down their tools, presented a series of demands about poor working and living conditions and began a one-day strike. Their concerns included the high number of accidents and deaths during three years of construction at the vast site.
That protest rapidly grew and, according to gendarmerie reports seen by HRW, a crowd of 2,000 protesting workers swelled to 10,000. The report said workers damaged property on the site and shouted slogans. Gendarmerie and police units used tear gas and water cannon to disperse them.
Executives from İstanbul Grand Airport (IGA), the company in charge of airport construction, which will also manage the airport, convened a meeting with workers’ representatives, who presented their demands. They included the immediate payment of overdue wages, an end to arbitrarily docking wages and an end to partial payment of wages in cash to avoid full social security contributions. Workers also demanded improved workplace safety to prevent work-related deaths and better living conditions, nutrition and healthcare.
On September 16, the İstanbul governor announced that 401 workers had been taken into custody, but that 275 of them had been released. Most were arrested the night after the protest at their dormitories on the building site. Others were detained when their IDs were checked as they arrived at the building site the next day. Police and gendarmes had in some cases forcibly entered the dormitories, kicking open the doors, to search them and detain workers.
Of the 43 workers taken before a court on September 19, 24 were placed in pretrial detention pending completion of a criminal investigation, and 19 were released under judicial supervision, requiring them to sign in at a police station twice a week and barring them from overseas travel.
Further arrests followed. On October 5, Özgür Karabulut, head of Dev Yapı-İş (Construction Workers Union) was arrested over a speech to workers on September 14 that did not advocate violence. Karabulut is among the 31 workers still held in pretrial detention in Silivri Prison. Three more men among the jailed workers are also trade union representatives from construction workers union İnsaat-İş. Based on the record of their court testimony, the workers justified their protest by citing poor workplace safety, accidents they had themselves had, difficult working conditions and unfair docking of pay.
The prosecutor has accused them of hindering the freedom to work, violating the law on demonstrations and public assembly, damaging public property, resisting police and possessing weapons.
On October 12, Kadri Samsunlu, the IGA CEO, told journalists he regretted that the protests had taken place and that the gendarmerie and police had forcibly dispersed the workers with tear gas. He acknowledged that the workers had been right in some of their complaints and that steps had been taken to address their concerns. However, media reports of his comments made no mention of the workers arrested or fired.
According to media reports, Turkish farmers had their lands taken from them for the purposes of construction while environmentalists have criticized the wholesale chopping down of huge forest areas. Then there are the workers, who in trying to put the airport up in record time, say they faced dire conditions: fatal accidents, low safety standards and issues over pay.
“They treated us like slaves,” worker Cemal Özder told Deutsche Welle (DW). He worked at the airport for nine months. “We often worked from 8 a.m. until 11 p.m., and some say they had to go through the night and still work the morning shift the next day.”
Özder was fired when he publicly criticized the conditions, he says. He is currently involved with the Turkish trade union confederation DİSK, which defends the rights of airport workers.
“Anyone who talks about the abuses is in danger of being jailed,” Özder said, adding, “This may be the largest airport in the world, but for me, the project is glued together with the blood of workers.”
Representatives of Health and Safety Labour Watch Turkey (İşçi Sağlığı ve İş Güvenliği Meclisi, İSİG), a nongovernmental group, and Dev Yapı-İş told Human Rights Watch that there have been at least 38 confirmed workplace deaths at the airport site over three years. They said they suspect the figure may be much higher because of underreporting of deaths and accidents and a lack of measures to ensure their thorough and effective investigation.
The Ministry of Family, Labor and Social Policy made a statement in February 2018 refuting media reports of 400 deaths, stating that social security records showed that 27 workers had died at the site. The latest death at the site was reported in the media on October 21, when the body of a worker who has not been publicly identified was recovered from a manhole at the site.
“The government advertises İstanbul’s new airport as the biggest in the world, but the prestige project has been marred by reports of accidents and arrests of protesting workers,” Sinclair-Webb said. “It is imperative for the authorities to improve working conditions and investigate deaths and injuries rather than using the police and courts to stifle workers’ demands.”