Turkish labor unions demand paid time off and increased pensions to combat coronavirus

Labor union leaders in Turkey noted the importance of paid time off for older workers and parents as schools are suspended amid the coronavirus outbreak. The leaders also pressed that wages and retiree pensions do not provide sufficient resources for workers and retirees to maintain the kinds of healthy diets and sanitary homes that can act as precautions against the coronavirus.

Serkan Alan / DUVAR

Turkish labor union leaders protested the lack of compensations offered to workers amid the coronavirus outbreak, including paid time off and protective gear on the job. 

The Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey (DİSK) gave trainings to employees about protections against the coronavirus at all of its unionized work places, said Arzu Çerkezoğlu, DİSK’s chair. The confederation has no data on preventative measures in work places that are not unionized, however.

“There are plenty of jobs where long hours are being enforced, no breaks are allowed, [and] shared dining halls and bathrooms are not sanitized,” Çerkezoğlu noted.

Workers also risk their health on their commute to work using public transportation, Çerkezoğlu said, adding that the workers’ immune systems are probably weakened, given that the minimum wage in Turkey may not allow an adult to maintain a healthy diet.

“A good diet including meats, vitamins and fresh produce is essential for a strong immune system. That’s highly concerning in a country where the minimum wage is below the hunger threshold,” Çerkezoğlu said. 

The current financial crisis has been ongoing for an extended period in Turkey, and has already taken a toll on households, said Mehmet Bozgeyik, Co-Chair of the Confederation of Public Employees Trade Unions (KESK).

“Public workers don’t get paid enough to provide a sufficiently sanitary shelter and a healthy diet. Comparing public wages to the amount needed to protect oneself against infection, public workers don’t have the resources to protect themselves,” Bozgeyik noted.

‘A national social policy is needed’

It’s unacceptable to send workers home on unpaid time off because production has stopped, 

Çerkezoğlu said, adding that a national social policy addressing unpaid time off should be implemented during the global coronavirus pandemic.

“Unpaid time off would further decrease the already low level of income. That would lower the immunity of about three-fourths of the population, wage-workers, against this virus and cause unwanted deaths,” Çerkezoğlu said. 

The Economic Social Council, including employers, workers and the government, should convene for an emergency session concerning the coronavirus, Çerkezoğlu said, who also enumerated some preventative measures she though could help subsidize workers during their time off. 

“Water and natural gas need to become free up to a point, and those services need to remain open despite users’ potential debts.”

“Since retirees make up majority of the risk group, retiree pensions should be raised to about 3,000 Turkish Lira (about $500).”

In a statement on DİSK’s website, Çerkezoğlu also suggested that lay-offs should be banned during the outbreak, bills and loan payments should be deferred without interest, and quarantines should be considered as sick leave by employers.

An unexpected effect of school closures 

The Turkish Education Ministry’s decision to shut down all schools for at least two weeks has brought into question the time off that will be offered to other public workers, said Bozgeyik from KESK.

“Since their kids will be staying at home, public workers need to stay at home to watch them,” Bozgeyik said. 

Workers in crowded businesses need to be placed on rotation and work from home if possible, Bozgeyik added. 

“Thousands of public workers at the post office need to be on the job to keep public life going, deliver packages and federal notices,” Bozgeyik said. “Post office employees need to have excused leaves for at least 15 days.”

Meanwhile, the healthcare industry is short of employees, Bozgeyik said, noting that any healthcare workers who are qualified but not assigned to a post yet should be deployed immediately. 

“Minimize public work’

Authorities should provide the necessary cleaning supplies and protective gear to ensure the safety of public workers’, Bozgeyik said, adding that these supplies must be free for workers.

“We demand that as many public posts be vacated as possible, except police, military, health and transportation workers,” Bozgeyik said. 

Bozgeyik said that there have also been reports of private businesses annulling work contracts, which he condemned and said should be stopped immediately.