The death this month of 10 Turkish construction workers has caused national outrage. Earlier this year, 301 people died in a mining disaster, and according to statistics so far this year, a record 1,500 workers have died. Istanbul is witnessing a massive construction boom supported by government agencies, with the city now boasting more skyscrapers than any European city. But critics say Turkey offers no protection to workers.
A woman screams for her lost son at his funeral. He was one of 10 workers killed when the brakes failed on the lift carrying them, and it plummeted 32 floors. Two twin teenage brothers who had just started work a week earlier were also among the dead. Many workers claimed the lift accident was a disaster waiting to happen.
He said he knew there was no parachute or emergency brake system on the lift, adding there was no work safety and workers have no security. He said it could have been him in the elevator, and that if workers complained about their conditions they could be fired.
The construction company denies negligence, but the death of the workers dominated the news, putting the spotlight on the country’s safety record, according to economist Professor Cengiz Aktar of Istanbul’s Suleyman Sah University.
"The lack of control, the lack of worker safety and working environment are appalling. And Turkey is ranked number-one in Europe in terms of working accidents and number-three after Algeria and El Salvador in the world. Observers qualify these work accidents as work assassinations," he said.
“It's not a work accident. It's murder,” protesters chanted outside the site of the construction accident in downtown Istanbul. Thousands gathered as anger over the deaths spread across the city.
But police quickly ended the demonstration using copious amounts of tear gas and water cannons. Despite the crackdown, observers say public concern is growing over health and safety.
In May, 301 workers perished when a fire broke out in their mine. Poor safety and lack of state inspections were blamed for the disaster. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has promised an investigation into the latest accident but said the trade unions were in part to blame.
He said laws were introduced and then there was no follow up on educating workers about them. He said the unions should not raise their voice after these accidents. Unions should inform the workers about their rights.
Trade Union leaders dismiss such criticism. They claim the ruling AK Party, in its decade-long rule, refused to abolish draconian anti-labor laws, introduced by Turkish military leaders back in the 1980s. In fact, union membership has been halved under the AKP, with union leaders even imprisoned under anti-terror laws.
Professor Aktar said construction unions, in particular, faced pressure.
"There is less and less control, and there is more facility especially for the building industry, which is the backbone of the Turkish economy. It’s an industry that employs millions of people. These are mainly former peasants. As Turkey is liquidating its agriculture, they have nowhere to go, and they are ready to accept any job. So they don't look for safety, and they don't look for social security. And of course the employers hate labor unions, and the pool of unemployed is very sizable so they can look for other workers and can get rid of those at the labor unions," he said.
Istanbul is a testament to the construction boom. The city is now the skyscraper capital of Europe. A decade ago there were none. Most are built by migrant workers from Turkey’s rural Black Sea region. That is where nearly all of the construction workers killed in the lift accident were from. Despite the latest horrific accident, most workers will return to the job, as this man explains.
He said the construction would be halted for 10 or 15 days. The company gave some time off. He said he was going to go back home for a while but would come back after the religious holidays. There is no other option but to come back.
But not all workers will be returning. According to Turkish media reports, about 20 men who spoke to the media about safety concerns have been fired. That may mean they will be safe, but for their families back home who depend on them, they will likely go hungry.