Something I have often pondered while walking the streets of Istanbul, by far the most expensive of Turkey’s major cities, is how people earning minimum wage here are getting by.
The short answer is that they really aren’t. An excellent short documentary series prepared by BBC Türkçe’s Neyran Elden entitled Geçinemeyenler (the people who just scrape by) depicts a variety of individuals and families in Istanbul that are barely eking out a living under very difficult circumstances.
The current net monthly minimum wage in Turkey is 2,324 TL ($386), while recent research from the Turkish Public Workers’ Union concluded that the nationwide poverty threshold for a single person as of December 2019 is considerably higher, at 3,408 TL ($566). Someone living with roommates in another city like Ankara or Adana — where rent is often a third of what it is in comparable neighborhoods of Istanbul — might be able to get by with the latter figure, but in Istanbul it would be nearly impossible.
Even white-collar workers who make twice that amount frequently live paycheck to paycheck in Istanbul, so it is not hard to imagine the hardships faced by those living in grinding poverty in an expensive city where the prices never seem to stop rising.
I once broached this subject with a chauffeur several years ago, who was earning the minimum wage working six days a week for a private company. He was laid off from a better-paying factory job and this was the only work he could find. He lived in the same apartment with his pensioner parents and adult son, who also worked a minimum wage job.
The first episode of Geçinemeyenler features the story of a man similar to the chauffeur that I spoke with. Mehmet Suat Doğan worked in the industrial sector for years until losing his job following the 2008 global financial crisis. Since then, he has found work as a janitor on a part-time basis, living in the Istanbul district of Esenyurt — the city’s most populated district — with two generations of his family. With wages so low and the cost of living so high, one might only guess how many people in Istanbul live this way, as large groups of people packed together in small places where salaries and pensions are pooled to pay the bills and put food on the table.
The titles of each episode are grim and reflect the reality of many of the city’s residents. One follows university student Mine Sunar, who has come from out of town to study and has to work part time as a waitress in order to cover her expenses. Despite being young and intelligent, she already appears pessimistic about her post-university future. The episode is entitled “We don’t have enough money to eat food containing meat.”
Perhaps the most soul-crushing episode, which is called “I was forced to send my family back to the village” is about Murat Pamuk, a man in his late 30’s working at a scrap metal yard in Istanbul who couldn’t afford to live with his wife and two children in the city. They went back to his hometown in a Central Anatolian province, while he lives in a single, cramped prefabricated room adjacent to his workplace, which he shares with one other person. He strives to send money back home. While describing the seemingly unbearable difficulties of his life, Pamuk manages to smile and remain relatively upbeat.
The standard price of public transportation just went up from 2.60 TL to 3.50 TL, a steep 35 percent increase. For the fortunate like me, this was a mere inconvenience, as I had 2.80 TL remaining on my transit card, and the day before the price hike I could have passed through the turnstile without having to load more money on it. But for the people who spend a significant amount of their monthly income on public transportation, this will make a huge difference. The pro-government media wasted no time in blasting the opposition-led Istanbul municipality for the increase, though Mayor Ekrem Imamoğlu said that the adjusted price still does not exceed operation costs.
Sometimes when I cross over one of the bridges spanning the Bosphorus by bus or take the ferry from Beşiktaş to Kadıköy, I think about the French photographer Sophie Calle’s Voir La Mer (To See The Sea) project, which features a number of people living in Istanbul who had never previously seen the sea, which may sound like an impossible feat in light of the city’s illustrious, aquatic location between the Black and Marmara Seas connected by the Bosphorus. Calle photographed these people, who ranged widely in age, as they took their first glance out over the water.
It has long been speculated how many people live in Istanbul who have never seen the sea before. Some figures estimate that number to be in the hundreds of thousands. Istanbul is a beautiful city but also an expensive and challenging one, and for so many residents the high costs and difficult living conditions strip the beauty away.