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Work resumes at Istanbul airport under police presence

Burcu Karakas
September 18, 2018

The building of Istanbul’s new airport is considered one of President Erdogan's prestige projects. But after hundreds of workers protested labor conditions, the police are now keeping a close eye on them.

Türkei Istanbl neuer Flughafen Protest gegen Arbeitsbedingungen
Turkish police arrested some 500 people early Saturday after they protested over labor conditionsImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/E. Gurel

Istanbul already has two major airports, but they have been bursting at the seams for years. A third international airport is supposed to provide much-needed relief for the metropolis of 15 million inhabitants. The new airport is one of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's major showcase construction projects. In order to complete it as quickly as possible, some 36,000 workers have been employed at the site for the last four years.

But unions have long complained about working conditions. Last week, thousands of workers took to the streets in a protest broken up by police firing tear gas. Around 500 people were arrested and many were beaten.

The protests began after workers had to wait for hours in the pouring rain for the shuttle bus that carries them to and from the barracks where they live and the construction site.

"After the end of our shift we went to the shuttle buses," said one worker, who would only identify himself as M. "It was pouring, we got very wet. When a single bus arrived at some point, everyone tried to get in there. When this situation repeated itself on Friday, the uprising began."

The workers' demands

But the two-hour transfer from the city center to the airport is by no means the only problem for the workers. They also complain about the lack of safety at work, poor accommodation and inadequate food.

"They try to squeeze two-storey bunk beds into tiny rooms," M. told DW. "Sometimes eight people sleep in one room. We are in the forest here, there are many insects. When we get home from work, they tell us: 'Go out, find an alternative place to stay, we'll spray insect venom'. But where should I go? I don't have an apartment here."

Another worker, 25-year-old F. from Diyarbakir, has been on the construction site for three months because he couldn't find work in his hometown.

"The food tastes like nothing, the water in the bathroom is either ice cold or not running at all," he said. "Our wages are not paid on time."

After the protest, the police increased their presence, the young man said. "Now it's like a state of emergency here. There are tanks everywhere."

The workers have drawn up a list of 15 demands. They want the problems with the shuttle buses and the food to be solved, they want clean accommodation, punctual wage payments and better health and safety at work.

Relatives receiving threats, union lawyer says

Workplace accidents are one of the biggest problems on the construction site. The largest Turkish opposition party, CHP, had already filed a motion in parliament months ago to have the cause of death of 400 workers investigated. But according to Turkey's Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, only 27 people have died on the construction site.

Kazim Bayraktar is a lawyer for the workers' union Insaat-Is. He said union members have tried to check the safety precautions on the construction site, but weren't allowed in.

"It is more difficult to get into this area than into army barracks," Bayraktar told DW.

It is also almost impossible to make contact with the families of the deceased.
"The relatives are threatened," the lawyer said. "That's how these incidents are prevented from making it into court. It is very difficult for us to get in contact with the families."

Regulations violated across the board

Ali Öztutan is chairman of the construction workers' union IYI-SEN. Of the 36,000 construction workers, 15,000 live in a camp, he said. Since the beginning of the construction work, all manner of regulations have been violated.

"The main reason for this is that the clients consider any adjustment to the guidelines to be a financial burden," Öztutan said. "Nothing has been done in four years to remedy the problems."

In the meantime, construction has entered the final phases. The first part of the airport is due to open on October 29, Turkish Republic Day.