Turkish court arrests 24 workers for protesting İstanbul airport construction conditions

A Turkish court on Wednesday arrested 24 workers for going on strike to protest deaths and working conditions on the construction site of İstanbul’s new airport, according to a report by the Evrensel daily.

Police detained 401 workers on Saturday after laborers began a protest triggered by an accident last week that left 17 workers injured. The protest turned into a strike with workers also complaining of irregularities in pay, lack of medical supplies and an unhygienic living environment.

While most of the workers detained were later released, a prosecutor requested the arrest of 28 workers, among them union leaders, accusing them of the crime of “violating the freedom to work,” “damaging public property” and “provoking people to hatred and enmity.”

The prosecutor presented a WhatsApp group named “Group Resistance” as evidence against the workers. The court freed four of the 28 on bail.

A nongovernmental group that documents workplace fatalities said 37 workers had died during the construction of the new airport, during which unions say contractors are cutting corners to complete ahead of the Oct. 29 opening ceremony.

Families of the workers, along with several opposition members of parliament, waited in front of the courthouse during proceedings. “He was saying that there were too many fleas and the food served in the cafeteria was uneatable,” the father of one worker told Evrensel.

“Some sort of cruelty has been inflicted on workers. They are here because they protested this cruelty. The food served to foreman and workers is different,” a relative of another worker said.

“They are made to work for 16 hours a day. Only half of their salaries were put into their bank accounts, while the other half was paid in person. They evade taxes by paying in person,” said another.

In February, the Labor Ministry said 27 workers had died on the construction site since 2015 when works began there. However, according to a report by the Cumhuriyet daily on February 12, 2018, the Turkish authorities have covered up the deaths of 400 construction workers during construction of the third airport in İstanbul.

The report stated that there have been scandals involving work safety in the construction of the third airport, which has attracted the reaction of environmentalists and scientists due to its destruction of nature. It is claimed that dozens of construction workers have lost their lives at the construction site where 31,000 workers are employed.

According to the Cumhuriyet report, the employees have described the construction site as a “graveyard.” The workers said employers have put pressure on workers to hurry up with construction and that there are no work safety measures in place at the construction site. They have said the deaths have been hidden by the employers by giving money to the families of the victims, who have come from as far away as Anatolian cities. A large number of foreign nationals also work at the construction site.

According to the pro-government media, when the first phase of the airport is completed, it will have a capacity of 90 million passengers. With completion in four stages, the airport is expected to serve 150 million passengers and to provide opportunities for flights to more than 350 destinations for nearly 100 airlines. As of 2025, a total of 120 million passengers, including 35,5 million domestic flights and 84,9 million international flights, were expected to be operated in and out the airport.

İstanbul’s third airport, which is expected to be the largest airport in the world when fully completed in 2023, will serve as Turkey’s primary airport and a hub for connecting flights between Europe and Asia.

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