According to the statistics, you don’t exist

The Turkish government has shown that it may have a mind-boggling distance from reality during the reporting of COVID-19 cases and deaths. Authoritarian regimes have a long history of interfering in official statistics. When data is made inaccessible or when data is not real, then a different type of politics begins.

Twenty-eight-year-old Özge doesn’t even remember how many CVs she has sent into the ether since she graduated. A lot. She graduated from the Public Relations department of a good university. She completed extra training programs, some of them for the best students at the school. She attended summer schools and she won several student contests. She was ready for “real life.” She went from job to job in the marketing and advertising sectors for four years, sometimes working for free or for ridiculous wages under the label of “graduate intern.” She was not insured; she was given tasks that could have been labelled bullying. She realized in horror that it was almost normal not to expect to be paid for two entire years. She knew she could not achieve anything this way, and decided to become a real estate agent. She took the test and received her license. It did not take too long for her to realize that there was not much space for “outsiders” in that sector. She wanted to sit the nationwide general university entrance examination again, and at the same time, she started to look for ways to immigrate to Canada, but meanwhile, her father died and her plans were suspended. For the last two and a half years, she has been looking for a job while trying not to lose her hope, but that has been to no avail. In a couple of interviews, she decided to use the “from the same hometown” card, but according to her, even though “pulling some strings” was essential, the market was already saturated and one needed higher and more influential “strings.” There is a “strings” hierarchy, she says. 

Özge lives with her two siblings and her mother. She is looking for ways to do business in the digital world with some former classmates. For the moment, she has a small orphan’s pension. She has access to health care through her deceased father’s retirement scheme from a bank. Is she ever called for an interview? There were some results from her applications. She has received several harassing messages in the evenings in WhatsApp, such as, “Are you engaged?”, “Let's have coffee some time” and “Can you work at night?” She has not set her bar too high, but she cannot find a job in somewhat proper circumstances. 

Özge asks whether she has been listed under the “people who have lost hope of finding a job” category in unemployment statistics. She does not believe in statistics anyway. Out of her own relatives alone, she says 20 people are unemployed between the ages of 25 and 40. The majority of her schoolmates are jobless; some of them have taken temporary jobs at call centers. While people are trying to cope with these “cold” facts, Özge thinks that it is like a heartless joke, an insult and a downright torture that the government announced that unemployment figures were falling. Özge added, “You list all the things you have achieved in the interview, but the person interviewing you does not care at all. It hurts you; your ego is wounded.” 

According to Young Unemployed Platform figures based on TÜİK data for September, 30.8 percent of young people between the ages of 15 and 29, which corresponds to 5,852,000 people, are neither studying nor working. “This figure is about the population of European countries such as Slovakia and Finland,” they said.

Unseen and unemployed 

Hundreds of thousands of young people like Özge and millions of others experience unemployment as a painful period, questioning their invisibility in life. This is not only an abstract analogy; it is an invisibility that can be detected in the public data. Despite her joblessness for the past two and a half years, Özge does not know whether she is included or not in the official figures. Her existence is worthless and uncertain, she feels.

At a time when precarity dominates all sectors, when new employment styles are created, when the difference between having a job and not having a job is indistinct, accessing accurate unemployment figures is an international problem. Ali Rıza Güngen, currently a visiting professor at the University of York, Canada, is a political scientist and political economist who focuses on debt. He says that, due to the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) updated standards, we can now make inferences about the classifications by stretching the definitions for the labor statistics through various assumptions. These new categorizations, by not considering short-term jobs and unregistered jobs as unemployment, are causing ambiguity about the transformation of the labor market for a large segment of society. Who are these people whose existence has become unclear? 

Güngen says that the uncertainty created in calculating unemployment can be best seen in the fact that people who have worked for just one hour in a week are not counted as unemployed. “When you have an informal job, when you receive a very limited financial income, you are not considered unemployed. You must be actively using job search channels. Moreover, the same goes when you may not be in a position to start the job at the required time, or you may have taken some time off from looking for a job. As a result, even though what you are going through is very similar to unemployment, you are not included in official figures. Though it is difficult to state a global figure, we do know it is a widespread phenomenon. In 2019, in the EU, it was found that people who were under-employed, who had lost hope and stopped looking for a job and those who were not able to start a job within two weeks had reached 14.9 million, exceeding the total number of unemployed people based on ILO criteria.” 

In other words, the number of the unemployed people kept in this vague area is more than the number of people who have been officially declared unemployed. In Turkey, the total number of this vague group is around 60 to 70 percent of the total number of the unemployed. According to Turkish Statistical Institute (TÜİK) data, those who are able to work a couple of hours a week, who declare that they want to work more, those who cannot make a living with the total work hours in their main jobs and their other jobs are not considered unemployed. This figure, which was 300,000 to 400,000 people before the pandemic in Turkey, Güngen said, is now thought to be near 1.5 million for the spring of 2020.

“According to May 2020 data, there are 6.3 million people who fit in the broad definition of unemployment, but who are not included in TÜİK’s primary unemployment figures. These are the people who have lost hope in finding a job, who are not looking for a job but are ready to work, and seasonal workers. Some 1.5 million are underemployed. All of them are not considered unemployed even though they are going through a period very similar to unemployment.” 

The chronometer isn’t counting

The Turkish government has shown that it may have a mind-boggling distance from reality during the reporting of COVID-19 cases and deaths. Ali Rıza Güngen finds parallels in the usage of numbers to misinform the public in both the management of the pandemic and in the management of the economic crisis. Authoritarian regimes have a long history of interfering in official statistics. We should also mention that a “democratic” capitalist state may also restrict these data or make them hard to obtain. When data is made inaccessible or when data is not real, then a different type of politics begins. Of course, there are certain segments of society that benefit from this uncertainty. Capital owners are working hard to convert this foggy weather into profit.

So, with such maneuvers as discovering new “natural gas fields,” or by claiming that “the terrorist organization PKK may exchange a huge amount of foreign currency,” how long will an economic crisis be managed? Güngen says that, through focusing on finding debt, this management style based on uncertainties shows that it can be maintained for a long time. "When you postpone problems and present this as if it were because of extraordinary circumstances, then you gain an unlimited amount of time. You are re-defining the platform of the conflict. Thus, those who are ruling may be dragged into a worse situation than their opponents; social uneasiness may be rising, but there is no countdown timer around the corner. Uncertainties can make accountability difficult, and threats can function over a long period of time by enabling repressive measures to be put in place. When we are aware of this, then we may have a chance to be more prepared against uncertainties.” 

Looking from the viewpoint of the society, how sustainable is “uneasiness”? Güngen thinks that increasing the cost of objecting to what is happening makes it difficult for anger to be directed towards change. “On lands where human beings are disposable and this is considered normal, the accumulated rage of the lower classes, as well as the conservatism of the middle classes based on their own interests, are equally frightening. I am not mentioning the rich, because they will keep ‘richsplaining’ while continuing to be partners of the government. They will look as though they are emphasizing the need for structural reforms.”

Resistance through data

Mehmet Ali Yılmaz was 19 years old when he died of electrocution while working on a banana plantation in the southern town of Alanya. Shakhnoza Yuldasheva was a 31-year-old female worker from Uzbekistan. While she was trying to transport the tea leaves she had collected in the Black Sea village of Başköy, in the Güneysu district of Rize, her clothes were caught in a primitive air ropeway constructed to transport workers and their harvests, and she fell 30 meters to her death. If the Occupational Health and Safety Council had not kept a tally of work-related deaths since 2011, we would not have heard of either of them. Their deaths would make them invisible; these murders would not be included in the data.  

Exploitation and oppression mechanisms are also based on making the damage they have caused invisible. An academic at Istanbul’s Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University, Faculty of Architecture, City and Regional Planning Department, Aslı Odman is also a voluntary contributor to Occupational Health and Safety Council. She has named this civilian effort to create reliable data “debris science.” The pursuit of lost data becomes an opposition tool, a form of objection. This debris consists of the losses from development and growth. Reports on workplace deaths, almanacs prepared by urban and environmental movements, and maps of construction crimes fall into this category. They also count femicides and the number of deaths caused by state violence, report on violations of rights in academia, attend the court hearings of the Peace Academics and keep a list of deaths among refugees. 

In these areas where losses are at their highest, Aslı Odman believes it is possible to establish cross-connections through the demand for justice and the right to mourn. This effort is mostly conducted by initiatives, platforms and various rights organizations; on some other occasions, it is through individual initiatives. Recording such losses does not lead to, as Odman puts it, a “wailing wall.” On the contrary, there is a goal of collecting the data needed to write the history of these times. It is actually writing history as we live in it. Even if this is mostly information gathered from open sources, without such a civilian intervention, the clock will keep ticking on in an arrangement in which it is wished that we do not know what we have lost — and we would be doomed to a future led by that.