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Turkish women's informal work - a complex story

Many Turkish women struggle with accessing formal employment and adequate social security.

Last updated: 02 Aug 2014 15:50
Riada Asimovic Akyol

Riada Asimovic Akyol is pursuing her doctorate in International Relations at Galatasaray University in Istanbul. She has been a contributing writer for Al-Monitor and other publications.
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The lack of daycare centres forces some Turkish women to stay at home and take care of their children, writes Akyol [AFP]

The nature of women's employment in Turkey remains highly divisive.

Journalist Mustafa Sonmez writes of "high rise but low quality", as half the country's female workers work in occupations that don't require serious qualifications, and don't offer social security benefits.

Statistics from March 2014 show that 49 percent of working women were not registered as employed with the state.

Among those, 2,039,000 were unpaid workers in family enterprises (such as small businesses, small-scale agricultural operations, etc). About 955,000 women were employed secretly, without paying social security contributions. There were 9,000 women who own businesses and 663,000 self-employed women that month, according to the Turkish Statistics Institute.

Despite depressingly low participation statistics - 71 percent of women in Turkey are absent from the workforce - and despite efforts for encouraging employment and promotion of Turkey's businesswomen, a great danger lies in the normalising of informal female work.

A skewed social security system

Any statistics indicating an increase in women's employment cannot be properly thorough without analysis of the nature of the work. For example, during the global financial crisis of 2008 to 2011, women's representation in the part-time employment market increased by four to five percent.

Yet such work reinforces the threat of lower wages, limited access to social protections, denial of labour rights, and lack of workers' organisation and representation, all of which are described as vulnerabilities against the International Labour Organisation's definition of "decent work".

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In general, the social security system in Turkey is gender-biased. As academic Tugba Bozcag illustrates, the system reduces women's reliance on the market and consolidates their "second-earner" or "caretaker" images, further emphasising their status as "dependent" or "weak".

The majority of women in Turkey therefore, only get indirect access to social security benefits - as the insured's wife, mother or daughter.

Additionally, there is an important legacy of the gendered division of labour in Turkey, so a majority of women are led by perceptions of work deemed "appropriate" for them. Until the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) reformed the Turkish Civil Code in 2003, men were defined as the heads of the family and household breadwinners, and women as homemakers.

Academic Ipek Ilkkaracan notes that such reform occurred thanks to persistent advocacy by the women's movement and pressure for compliance with European Union norms and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Evidently, Turkey should continue similar reforms through this sort of engagement with international institutions.

Until 2001, married women's participation in the Turkish workforce was conditional upon the approval of their husband - even though this was not enforced as a legal obligation in practice. In broader terms, it remains alarming that, according to the World Bank's report on gender equality in business in 2014, husbands still hold the power to prevent their wives from working in at least 15 countries, and laws in 79 nations still restrict the kind of work women can do.

Back in Turkey, even when they are officially employed, women's unpaid contributions in terms of care remain unrecognised. The perception of domestic work as a woman's unpaid familial duty is also a norm, not an exception. A May 2013 report published by the Women's Labour and Employment Initiative in Turkey, a coalition of 27 women's organisations, states: "According to the time spent [performing] unpaid care by women aged between 15-64, Turkey ranks as the top country among the 30 OECD and non-OECD countries [studied]."

More precisely, a 2006 time-use study showed that women between the ages of 15 and 64 spend an average of five hours, 17 minutes per day on care work and household maintenance, while men spend 51 minutes per day. The poorer the household, and the less educated the woman is, the heavier her burden becomes.

Therefore, in Turkey and similar patriarchal societies with persisting sexist notions of male and female duties, many employed women continue to not only work in specific sectors without long-term security, but they are bound to work a "double day", performing additional care work and household maintenance when they come home from their job.

Striking a balance

Though societal transformation is possible, it won't happen easily. As Martha Alter Chen from Harvard University has said: "Recognising and, more importantly, counting women's invisible remunerative work would challenge our empirical understanding not only of the informal sector but also of the economy as a whole."

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Domestic work is just one, albeit huge, part of the informal economy concerning women, so the ILO's adoption of a convention on June 16, 2011, to protect domestic workers through recognising their rights is a significant step towards resolving the injustices faced. In Turkey, though covered in the Law of Obligations, "domestic service providers" are not defined in the complicated Labour Law, which guarantees rights to social security and unionisation for other occupations.

Discussions continue on whether to put domestic work within the scope of the Labour Law or within separate legal regulation. The ILO suggests that domestic workers should be subjected to occupational standards and training, and argues for more engagement through better trade union representation. Most importantly, to improve the status of a large number of domestic workers in the informal sector, Turkey should ratify the above-mentioned ILO Convention Number 189, and change its domestic legislation accordingly.

Additionally, female participation in any sort of labour market is often conditional on the availability of childcare services, the demand for which the Turkish state and private sector do not fulfil. In such an environment, it is unsurprising that women accept informal jobs with flexible hours or chose not to work and stay at home to take care of their children.

Likewise, the desire to fit in within the patriarchal ideals should not be underestimated. As anthropologist Jenny White suggests: "Women's home-based income-producing activities in Istanbul, combined with the more traditional labour of housewifery and motherhood, are being viewed in the community as an expression of their identity as 'good and hard-working Muslim women'."

Though this description dates from 1994, such a depiction of women's engagement in informal work, whether willingly - as an effort to uphold expected ideals - or unwillingly - due to a gender-discriminatory cultural or economic context - seems perfectly valid today.

The obstacles towards increasing female labour participation in Turkey - in quantity and in quality - are both culturally embedded and structurally reinforced.

Priorities obviously differ, both for government and among Turkish women themselves. On one hand, it is a widespread belief that women's employment needs to be increased in skill-required and capital-intensive employment sectors, that macroeconomic policies should be changed towards better working conditions, alongside shifts towards better work-life balance policies.

On the other, however, a substantial chunk of conservative female voters has shown support for "family-oriented" policies promoted heavily by the current administration. Not everyone seems to believe that there should be a more equal sharing of domestic care between women and men. Thus, the disagreements between women's organisations "promoting protection of the traditional family" and those advocating "individual empowerment and labour rights" continue.

Ultimately, no woman should be judged for her aspirations - to be childless, or to be a full-time housewife and a mother of one or five kids, to be an engineer or president of the state. But, for those who would like to be working mothers regardless of profession, until the state facilitates equal access to opportunities, work-life balance policies and proper social security provisions, discrimination will flourish and informal labour injustices will persist.

Riada Asimovic Akyol is pursuing her doctorate in International Relations at Galatasaray University in Istanbul. She has been a contributing writer for Al-Monitor and other publications.

Follow her on Twitter: @riadaaa

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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