Over the last six months, 13 workers have died at the shipyards of Tuzla. Some of these workers, employed in the largest shipyard region of Turkey, one of the most important shipbuilding countries of the world, were burned to death by an oxygen cylinder, while others were poisoned by the smoke produced during welding. Deaths due to falls from platforms, heart attacks, and electric shocks have also been very common at Tuzla in recent years. The total number of accidents at Tuzla, 73 in 2002, by last year had risen to 227.
Unfortunately, these deaths and injuries are not mere accidents. Rather, they are largely due to the willingness of ship owners and contractors to violate labour standards, and of the Turkish government to turn a blind eye to these violations.
Turkey’s emergence as a major player in the shipbuilding industry, and the industrial expansion of Tuzla, located on the outskirts of Istanbul, are generally viewed as a success story: many ships are exported, and profits are high. However, shipyards in the region are achieving international competitiveness at the cost of employing management practices (such as outsourcing and subcontracting) which create conditions that threaten the health and safety of the workers employed in the sector.
Today, over 90 per cent of orders in the region are being completed through the subcontracting system, which, while very favorable to ship owners, is the main source of negligence and labour standard violations. In this system, ship owners and builders outsource their projects to small and medium-sized contractors who offer lower labour costs. Contractors achieve these lower labour costs by offering their workers contracts with much worse terms, such as compensation and benefits, if contracts are offered at all. Often, they employ migrant workers who are especially vulnerable to exploitation and more likely to accept bad working conditions. Thus, ship owners and builders reap the benefits of lower labour costs while evading accountability for the conditons under which their work is done. In other words, the very reason why Tuzla is so successful is that it is so dangerous for workers.
While there has been a debate for some time about the lack of investment in occupational health and safety in Tuzla, and also about the possible expansion of the shipyard region beyond its capacity, Turkish public authorities, until very recently, have chosen to ignore these issues. The Turkish government has failed to respond to the alarming increase in the number of accidents, and no steps have been taken to improve working conditions and prevent further deaths. Thus, in Tuzla, death has become an ordinary fact of life.
Recently, under mounting pressure from the public, several investigations were carried out by inspectors of the Turkish Ministry of Labor. Finally, last week saw the first heavy penalty imposed on a shipyard in Tuzla. On May 22nd, the Selah Shipyard, in which two laborers had died on May 9th and 18th, was shut down due to lack of workplace security for laborers. However, after only six days, the shipyard was allowed to reopen on the grounds that security requirements had been met.
Failures to respect labour standards violate the most basic rights of workers. It is the responsibility of prosecutors to investigate the negligence and determine who is responsible for the deaths at Tuzla. And it is the responsibility of the government to strengthen the monitoring of working conditions in the region and to promote improved labour standards. Guaranteeing freedom of association for the workers and recognizing their right to collective bargaining are some of the ways in which the Turkish government could try to prevent further deaths. Another way is designing projects to address critical issues such as occupational safety. But as long as conditions remain what they are, Turkish shipyards will continue to buy their economic success at the cost of the lives of the very workers on whom this success depends.
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This post was written by Seven Agir