Turkish workers resist austerity


By Norm Dixon

Workers turned out in huge numbers in Turkey's capital, Ankara, on July 24 to oppose government moves to "reform" the country's social security system. Turkey's right-wing coalition government, elected in May on a wave of anti-Kurdish racism, has promised the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that it will increase workers' retirement age and keep wage rises below the inflation rate in return for loans.

Organisers estimated that 200,000 people gathered in the Kizilay Square. Thousands more were unable to enter the square because central Ankara was gridlocked with people and traffic. The protest was the largest of many held throughout Turkey that day, organised by the Confederation of Turkish Trade Unions (Turk-Is) and three other labour federations.

The government, led by Bulent Ecevit's right-wing Democratic Left Party in coalition with the fascist Nationalist Action Party, has offered to increase the minimum wage by 20% while the official inflation rate has soared to around 50%.

Ecevit is moving to increase the retirement age to 58 for women and 60 for men. Presently, in theory, Turkish women can retire at 38 and men at 43. These provisions are monotonously described as among the "world's most generous", but such assessments ignore the fact that workers in Turkey work 55-60 hours a week, compared to 35-40 in the European Union (EU). With this factored in, workers in Turkey retire at the equivalent of 57.

The social security provisions apply only to Turkey's 9 million formal workers. At least 2.5 million people work in the informal economy and therefore receive no benefits.

Turk-Is points out that, with an average life expectancy in Turkey of 65 years, the new retirement ages will create "graveyard pensioners". Protesters emphasised this point by carrying coffins and chanting "No to retirement in the grave".

Under pressure from the IMF and the EU, Turkey aims to decrease inflation to 10% by 2001 by slashing government spending and boosting privatisation. Spending on health, education and social security, as well as public sector wages, is likely to be slashed.

However, one area of spending that the IMF has remained silent on is the more than US$7 billion a year spent on the war against the Kurdish people in the south-east. This vicious war swallows about 19% of Turkey's annual budget, compared to social security's 9%.

During the election Turkey's right-wing parties cynically whipped up Turkish national chauvinism over the abduction of Kurdistan Workers Party leader Abdullah Ocalan to distract attention from the anti-worker policies they were preparing to impose.

Unfortunately, the trade unions did not raise demands for an end to the war of oppression against the Kurds at the rally, or draw attention to the links between the rise of Turkish nationalism and anti-Kurdish racism and the escalation of attacks on workers' rights.