As Turkey’s inflation rate climbs, workers strike for pay hikes

This year has witnessed a sharp spike in the number of strikes by organised labour in Turkey.

Migros workers who were fired demonstrating outside of the company's Istanbul Headquarters
Migros workers demonstrating in Istanbul, holding banners that say they were fired for asking for a raise [Photo courtesy of Paul Osterlund/Al Jazeera]

Istanbul, Turkey – Organised labour in Turkey is having a moment.

In January, after striking for more than two weeks, journalists at Istanbul’s BBC bureau secured a 32 percent pay rise from management. Paid in Turkish lira, the workers had walked off the job after rejecting the company’s offer of a 20 percent pay bump.

In another notch for labour’s belt, drivers at Turkish e-commerce giant Trendyol refused management’s offer of an 11 percent pay hike, went on strike and won a 38.8 percent wage increase.

While 30 percent plus wage gains appear extremely impressive in many parts of the world, in Turkey, they don’t even keep up with the cost of living.

The country’s currency lost more than 40 percent of its value against the United States dollar last year following successive central bank interest rate cuts championed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Erdogan insists that lower interest rates fight inflation – a view that directly counters mainstream economic theory, which holds that lowering borrowing costs fuels rising prices.

Indeed, price pressures have continued into the new year with consumer price inflation topping 48 percent in January, according to the government’s statistics office.

That is the highest level in two decades, but even that eye-watering figure may vastly understate the true rate of increase. The independent Inflation Research Group (ENAG) pegs Turkey’s inflation rate at north of 114 percent. The government disputes that figure.

Striking workers at BBC Instanbul learn that thier pay demands have been met
Striking workers from BBC Istanbul learn their demands have been met [Courtesy of Paul Osterlund/Al Jazeera]

No matter how you measure it, the purchasing power of Turks has been decimated. The government has taken steps to try and ease the burden. Erdogan said on Saturday that value-added tax on essential food items would be slashed from 8 percent to 1 percent and put private-sector businesses on notice that the government expects them to lower their prices to reflect the new policy.

The government also raised the minimum wage at the start of this year by 50 percent.  But that gain has been largely offset by the government’s decision to switch to a graduated tariff system that substantially hikes prices for natural gas and electricity – a move that triggered protests in cities across the country.

“As cold weather moves to the heavily populated western parts of the country, the three-digit hikes to utility prices are affecting larger numbers of people,” said Atilla Yesilada, an economist and analyst at Global Source Partners.

Yesilada told Al Jazeera that Turkey is experiencing “an unusually large number of strikes” this year because private-sector pay increases in lower-skilled service jobs have not kept up with wage increases for civil servants and retirees.

At least 56 worker strikes broke out in Turkey between January 12 and February 10, according to the Labour Studies Group, an independent research initiative. That compares to 84 strikes the government tracked between 2016 and 2020.

Erkan Kidak, a research assistant at the Department of Labour Economics and Industrial Relations at Turkey’s Pamukkale University, said conditions are ripe for workers to demand a better deal.

“Two prerequisites must be met for the working class in Turkey to revolt,” he told Al Jazeera. “The first of these is the decline in purchasing power, and the second is the weakening of their bosses and the government. As both prerequisites have been fulfilled, workers employed in different sectors all over Turkey have revolted.”

Management pushes back

At the start of this month, drivers for online food delivery service Yemeksepeti went on strike after turning down a pay raise that labour organisers say was below the rate of inflation.

Yemeksepeti, which is owned by Germany’s Delivery Hero, has also been accused of engaging in union-busting.

Kenan Ozturk, chairman of the All Transport Workers’ Union, said Yemeksepeti reclassified its drivers last year from “transport” workers to “office/trade” workers to thwart collective bargaining efforts and even went to court to overturn the union’s authorisation to represent them.

“Most recently, Yemeksepeti started to pressure its insured employees to become independent contractors,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that “the aim was to rid itself of the union completely”.

Yemeksepeti and Delivery Driver did not reply to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment. In the meantime, the workers continue to demonstrate in Ankara and Izmir for their right to engage in union activities free of harassment, as well as a wage that does not fall behind inflation, said Ozturk.

Striking workers demonstrate in front of Yemeksepeti headquarters
Yemeksepeti drivers protest [Courtesy of Paul Osterlund/Al Jazeera]

Some firms are responding to labour actions by sacking employees. On February 9, Migros, one of Turkey’s largest supermarket chains, fired more than 250 striking workers at its storage facility in the Istanbul district of Esenyurt.

The workers walked off the job on February 3 to protest the firm’s wage increase – which they claim amounted to 8 percent – and to demand an additional earnings increase of four Turkish lira per hour.

Migros released a statement defending its actions, saying that the employees who were sacked were preventing those who wanted to work from doing their jobs. It also said claims that it had hiked wages by only 8 percent were “misleading” and that the workers at the distribution centre saw an average pay increase of 54 percent including bonuses.

A subsequent statement by the union representing the workers said that Migros had only raised wages 8 percent above the minimum wage.

Companies that fail to yield to workers’ demands are not coming through it unscathed – at least in the court of public opinion.

News of the Migros firings led to a social media campaign calling for a boycott of the grocer, while some of the workers who were sacked continue to glean press attention by holding public demonstrations.

Yemeksepeti drivers, with their eye-catching bright pink jackets, have meanwhile emerged as a symbol of the sharp increase in strike actions in Turkey. On February 10, they gathered outside the company’s Istanbul headquarters, chanting: “We don’t want a poverty wage,” “We want to live humanely,” and “We will win by resisting.”

 ‘Year of the strike’

Union organisers say as long as workers’ wages fall behind inflation, they will not back down.

“Under these conditions, it has become impossible for people to survive; it’s unbearable,” said Ozturk. “This is the underlying reason for this wave [of strikes] and in the upcoming period, these workers’ demonstrations will grow even more and spread to other sectors.”

And some believe that the more strike actions result in victory for workers, the more it will inspire others to follow suit.

“The success of the BBC Istanbul bureau staff will encourage the entire media sector – where the lack of unionisation is profound – to take action against precarious employment, low wages and poor working conditions,” said Ilkay Akkaya, general secretary of the Journalists’ Union of Turkey, noting that it was the first media strike in Turkey in over a decade.

“Of course, a strike is our last resort,” she told Al Jazeera.

And few see labour backing down until inflation does, too.

“I think that the strike wave will continue in 2022, as inflation continues to increase and political instability manifests itself,” said Kidak. “I predict that 2022 will be characterised as the year of the strike in Turkey.”

Source: Al Jazeera