ISTANBUL - A Turkish court has detained 24 construction workers for protesting conditions at the building of Istanbul's third airport, according to Turkish media.
International condemnation was swift. "This is an appalling assault on the right to protest and organize and on the dignity of workers in Turkey," tweeted senior Turkey researcher Emma Sinclair Webb of the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
The 24 workers face charges of resisting police, violating protest laws and damage to public property. The detentions are in connection to protests involving thousands of workers over safety and poor conditions at the construction site of Istanbul's new airport.
The airport is planned to be one of world's largest, the centerpiece of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's scheme of mega-construction projects to create what he calls the "new Turkey."
The labor unrest at the airport site started Sept. 14, triggered by the reported deaths of four workers traveling on a service bus from their dormitories to work.
"Four of our friends died," said one protesting worker, speaking to local media anonymously. "The shuttle bus had an accident."
He added, "5,000, 6,000, almost 7,000 workers left work because they didn't get paid. We can't tell them don't go. Neither can we stay here like that."
Within hours of the protest, police using tear gas and armored cars moved in, arresting many strikers. Early Sept. 15, police raided the worker's dormitories, detaining as many as 500 people.
With more than 36,000 people building the airport, it's one of Europe's biggest construction sites, but it also has become a national focal point for the treatment of construction workers. The International Trade Union Confederation lists Turkey as one of the world's worst places for worker safety.
Media report that since construction on the airport started three years ago, more than 400 workers have been killed. The transport ministry says the number is 27.
Trade union officials claim workers are under intense pressure to meet next month's opening, which is timed to coincide with Turkey's Republic Day on October 29.
"What we call as demands are simply to correct the working conditions that belong to the middle ages," said Ozgur Karabulut, general manager of Dev IS Union. "Workers can't sleep because of cockroaches in the dormitories, they can't eat the food as there are worms inside."
Karabulut blames the deepening financial crisis in Turkey as a factor for the worsening conditions. The Turkish lira has plummeted more than 40 percent this year, driving up import costs.
"Because the costs are growing for the subcontractors, to make profit [they] cut from everything, from helmets to safety shoes," Karabulut said.
"This problem is not unique to the airport construction site," he added. "Any of the state's mega-projects all have the same conditions and problems, and because the workers are asking for the rights they are getting beaten, gassed and detained."
With nearly all mainstream media under control of the president or his supporters, the protesting workers have been labeled as "provocateurs" and "terrorists."
In Istanbul's central Kadikoy district Sunday, union officials reached out to the public and fringe media. Officials tried to read a statement outlining their demands and the conditions facing the workers.
Police quickly surrounded the officials and told them the Istanbul governor, Vasip Sahin, had banned the protest. Seconds later the officials were arrested, handcuffed and dragged away. More than two dozen people were detained.
Opposition parties are voicing support for the protesting workers.
Deputy leader of the main opposition Republican People's Party, Sezgin Tanrikulu, says the crackdown is unprecedented.
"Nowhere in the world, just for demanding better and more humane working conditions, more than 500 workers are taken into custody, gassed, beaten in raids on dorms in the middle of the night. For demanding adequate food, payments to be made to a bank account. It shows the level of democracy and law concerning workers' rights and workers," Tanrikulu said.
The consortium building the airport has not commented. However, Governor Sahin promised action, saying, "The employer has begun work to eliminate the problems of the employees of the airport construction."
But with less than six weeks left until the airport's planned opening, union officials claim pressure is being stepped up on workers.
Paramilitary police are now reportedly supervising the workers who've returned to work, while new workers are being brought in from Erdogan's traditional Black Sea voting stronghold.