Turkey’s state-run Vocational Training Centers disguise child labor, worker deaths

Turkey’s state-run Vocational Training Centers (MESEM) are under scrutiny as two teenage students under the program died in work-related accidents in the first month of 2024. Education Workers’ Union (Eğitim-Sen) suggested that the program exploits cheap student labor and risks their lives.

Fatih Saygın / Gazete Duvar 

The Vocational Training Centers (MESEM) of Turkey are under the spotlight after two teenage students in the apprenticeship program died in work-related accidents in the first month of 2024. Education Workers’ Union (Eğitim-Sen) representatives emphasize the lack of regulations in the program, which leads to the exploitation of child labor. 

Turkey’s Education Ministry launched MESEM in 2016 allows middle school graduates to enroll in a one-year program where they can receive theoretical and practical vocational training. Students spend one day of the week in class, and four days apprenticing at a workshop or factory.

The students are desirable for workplaces, as they receive 30 percent of the minimum wage and the government covers their insurance costs. Eğitim-Sen director Kemal Irmak suggested that the scheme was programmed to offer cheap labor to the market. 

Irmak said that the Union has contacted the Education Ministry to report malpractices in the program. “Children are working without supervisors in environments without suitable risk assessment,” he said, which led to many preventable deaths and injuries. 

The union leader stated that the Ministry was not transparent about the deaths at the MESEM program. “We only learn about these deaths from news reports,” Irmak protested.   

In January, MESEM students 14-year-old Arda Tonbul and 16-year-old Erol Can Yavuz died in workplace accidents. A total of eight children died, and two were injured in the first term of the 2023-2024 education year. 

Head of the Children’s Rights Commission in the Trabzon Bar Association, Selahattin Onay noted that the consistent drop in Turkey’s child labor numbers paused in 2016. 

He reminded that the increase in working refugee and undocumented children was not reflected in official numbers. Child labor is most prevalent between the ages of 15 and 17, the majority of whom work in the service industry, the attorney reported. 

Onay stated that necessary laws and statutes to prevent child labor were in effect in Turkey, however, the application was usually not up to code. Similarly, workplaces collaborating with MESEM often did not abide by the rules against labor exploitation.  

The lawyer reiterated the need for increased inspections in the program. “Everyone sees the children working, so the institutions’ denial is not acceptable. The government has to take this grim reality into serious consideration,” Onay concluded. 

Turkey ratified the “Convention on the Urgent Action to Prohibit and Eliminate the Worst Forms of Child Labor” of the International Labor Organization in 2001. However, the Health and Safety Labour Watch of Turkey (İSİG) reported that at least 907 children died since the convention came into effect 23 years ago.

(English version by Ayşenaz Toptaş)