Ahmet Murat Aytaç
The life of seasonal workers is like a mirror that reflects the political and economic consequences of the social transformations Turkey underwent in the late 1990s. Some refer to seasonal workers as “invisible workers.” They migrate and work in several locations sometimes as long as 11 months of the year depending on the harvest. During that time, people from the Kurdish provinces of Turkey move to different parts of the country. Several agricultural production hubs on the Mediterranean coast, in Central Anatolia as well as on the Aegean or Black Sea coasts attract jobseekers.
Turkey’s northwestern province of Sakarya, close Istanbul, is one of these centers, where Kurdish workers gravitate to in their struggle to make a living. According to recent data on hazelnut production on the Black Sea coast, Sakarya comes in the third place after the provinces of Ordu and Samsun based on harvest. Hazelnut exportation is one of the Turkish economy’s rising sectors. Hazelnut production and the number and size of hazelnuts fields are expanding across the country, while more and more seasonal workers are drawn to this particular province as a temporary labor force.
The increase in the number of seasonal workers in Sakarya is essentially due to these dynamics. Several discussions were triggered when a racist attack took place earlier this month in this province when a group of landowners assaulted Kurdish workers. Such events have to do with a social transformation process. Yet the economic transformation that seems to be taking place has holistic causes and consequences that directly affect people’s lives. This phenomenon is a complex pattern in which different factors including class, ethnicity, gender and religion intersect.
Academic Ayşe Küçükkırca has conducted research on seasonal Kurdish agricultural workers in Sakarya province in the 2010s. Her research shows that relationships between hazelnut producers and temporary workers in the region were relatively warm and could have been considered humane prior to the 2000s but they became increasingly dismissive and confrontational in time.
This study shows that the change in the relationship can be explained by four factors. The first one is that back in the 2010s, the workers had already lost pretty much all of their bargaining power. They had no other choice but accepting the offers they were made. Second, while landowners previously compensated for the workers’ travel costs, the workers themselves began to cover their travel costs. The third factor is that growers and workers previously used to live in the same venues. That ceased.
Living quarters were separated and workers were forced to reside in campsites far from cities. Finally, prior to its gleaning, the product used to be offered to female workers. Nowadays, the producer keeps it. These transformations caused a dynamic of economic exploitation and a drop in humanitarian conditions.
As Ayşe Küçükkırca puts it: “[…] After the 1990s, producers stopped providing accommodation for workers. The incoming groups began to live in rough conditions near gas stations, or in campsites outside the city. For instance, in the Köpek Meydanı [Dog Square] in Adapazarı near Istanbul, and the camp site that was allocated to workers outside the Black Sea town Ordu in 2008, are venues that make its habitants hate themselves and those who visit and see them hate humanity […]”
The process behind this transformation is rooted in broader transformations that took place in the 1990s. Firstly, Turkey’s agricultural policies changed. Under the neoliberal policies at the time, subsidies for certain products were slashed and product base prices were lowered. This led to the impoverishment of producers in the agricultural sector as a whole. While agricultural production shrank, so did the demand for agricultural workers. Yet as poverty soared across the country, the agricultural workforce supply increased.
Beyond the change in agricultural policies, amid the conflict between the Turkish state and the PKK, the authorities evacuated entire villages in the southeast of Anatolia as a security measure. As a result, millions of people were displaced, which only further contributed to the already rising levels of poverty. This reshaped the distribution of the country’s human and economic resources amongst ethnic groups.
The recent inhumane attack against migrant workers that took place in Mazıdağı should be analyzed within this framework of economic oppression. As the number of assaults against Kurdish workers in cities that attract seasonal labor rise, we more or less witness the same scenarios. The venues that shelter workers are subjected to attacks which at times stem from insignificant, local issues, and at other times from nationwide political issues. The reasons vary from mundane and daily disputes to fury over the holding of a martyr’s funeral or a heated debate regarding the Kurdish issue in Turkey.
No matter what triggered the assaults, the general tendency in Turkey right now is to deny the ethnic dimension of the conflict. As a result, workers that were attacked were hastily returned to their hometowns.
This denial goes through the statements that are delivered by the local authorities as officials typically refute the possibility of ethnic motives behind such attacks. A cover-up operation usually follows the denial. To prevent the incidents from escalating, the authorities swiftly move the group that was attacked outside of town.
The ethnic dimension of those attacks is also denied insofar as the causes behind those events are reduced to a single factor. In the debates that surround these events, the claim is often made that the incidents are related to class dynamics, thereby discarding the ethnic dimension. As the victims are workers, the incidents obviously have to do with social class. Yet they are not the sole factor. In fact, agricultural workers of other ethnicities do not suffer such attacks.
A wide-scale solution to this issue cannot be achieved through denial. By acknowledging its ethnic factor, we could address a systematic phenomenon that links micro-scale violence to macro-scale aggression patterns. This assault mechanism ensures that the economically and socially dependent continue to be ignored, derogated and oppressed. In this course of events, the slightest objection or display of personal dignity is not tolerated. For they will be used for further attacks and the ensuing process of cover-up and denial. I believe this a crucial issue we ought to focus on.
Ahmet Murat Aytaç is a political scientist.