Sketches on the Condition of the Working Class in Turkey

Zehra Güner (1)
In March 1885, Friedrich Engels wrote an article for the London Commonweal under the heading “England in 1845 and in 1885” as a sequel to his seminal work The Condition of the Working Class in England. In this article, Engels pictured the condition of the class movement in 40 years after writing The Condition of the Working Class in England very vividly as follows:
“Chartism was dying out. The revival of commercial prosperity, natural after the revulsion of 1847 had spent itself, was put down altogether to the credit of Free Trade. Both these circumstances had turned the English working-class, politically, into the tail of the ‘great Liberal Party,’ the party led by the manufacturers. This advantage, once gained, had to be perpetuated. And the manufacturing capitalists, from the Chartist opposition, not to Free Trade, but to the transformation of Free Trade into the one vital national question, had learnt, and were learning more and more, that the middle-class can never obtain full social and political power over the nation except by the help of the working-class. Thus a gradual change came over the relations between both classes. The Factory Acts, once the bugbear of all manufacturers, were not only willingly submitted to, but their expansion into acts regulating almost all trades was tolerated. Trades’ Unions, hitherto considered inventions of the devil himself, were now petted and patronised as perfectly legitimate institutions, and as useful means of spreading sound economical doctrines amongst the workers. Even strikes, than which nothing had been more nefarious up to 1848, were now gradually found out to be occasionally very useful, especially when provoked by the masters themselves, at their own time. Of the legal enactments, placing the workman at a lower level or at a disadvantage with regard to the master, at least the most revolting were repealed.”2

Interestingly enough, the essence of this vivid statement on the working class movement 40 years after Engels’ seminal work, describes the condition of the working class in Turkey well enough. I mean, in essence but not in form, which I shall elaborate in a few sentences.
As the working class failed to advance the movement towards taking the political power in 1847 -it is a different matter whether or not it was historically possible for the working class to seize the political power- it was broadly enslaved by the bourgeois political system and the dominant ideology of “Free Trade”. Engels was, then, talking about the dying out of Chartism and the working class movement turning into the tail of the Liberal Party. In his description of the situation in 1885, Engels refers to the assimilation of the trade union movement within the bourgeois ideology and the formation of a labor aristocracy. In his preface to the English edition of his book, he elaborates on how the capitalists resort to trade unions on different occasions as just another tool to postpone the impacts of the capitalist crises of overproduction. These are, of course, facts we know well enough from the experiences of more than a century now. Yet, Engels’ brief description of the condition of working class in England in 1885 draws a picture of the dynamics of class struggle in a nutshell.
In essence, as the working class fails to march towards greater unity and militancy in class-oriented direction, it is assimilated and defeated by the opposing class, and thereby, broad sections of the working class become appendages of the bourgeois political system and ideology. The opposite of unification and greater militancy becomes the motto of the day, that is fragmentation, disorganization, assimilation and subjugation.
These are the essential points of reference which we may draw parallels with Engels’ description and the condition of the working class in Turkey for the last three decades. Of course, Engels’ vivid picture may as well be applied to the working classes of other countries in these general lines. Therefore, we need to discuss the peculiarities of the condition of the working class in Turkey in order to make our argument more comprehensive and plausible.
Engels wrote a book of almost 250 pages, covering different sections of the working class in England in order to describe their condition. Of course, in such a brief article, we do not have enough space neither to discuss the condition of each section of the working class in Turkey, nor to indicate each and every factor that have an explanatory power in describing this condition. Furthermore, I do not have the brilliance of Engels, but I merely resort to the theoretical heritage of the great masters. Yet, I believe, we can point to several important, maybe the most important as we see it, factors that have a broad influence over the working class in Turkey. In general, I simply try to give a sketch of the factors that lead to the fragmentation, disorganization, assimilation and subjugation of the working class in Turkey. However, the most important question, i.e. the strategy and the tactics of the communists to tackle these forces is left unanswered in this article, for it can only be the topic of another one.
Unemployment as a dehumanizing factor
Before drawing conclusions on the effects of high and persistent levels of unemployment on the working class in Turkey, allow me to address several data on the issue. But, first of all, I should explain briefly why I start an article on the condition of the working class in Turkey with “unemployment”. The reason is simple and clear: it is not only that the threat of unemployment affects very large segments of the working class, but the unemployed constitutes one of the largest sections of the working class in Turkey.
According to the labor statistics presented by Turkish Statistical Institute (TSI), the unemployment rate in Turkey as of November 2011 is 9.1 per cent and the number of the unemployed is 2.5 million persons. However, in terms of the broader and truer definition of unemployment,3 the number of unemployed reaches to 4.5 million and the unemployment rate to 16.2 per cent approximately. The official unemployment rate among the youth (those who are between 15 and 24 years of age) is around 17 per cent, whereas the real rate of unemployment among the youth is approximately 30 per cent and the number of unemployed young people is 1.438 million. In urban areas and among the youth with higher education levels these rates are even higher.
The number of those who are not actively seeking a job but available to start a job has been gradually increasing, reaching to 1.2 million. Approximately 700 thousand of those are discouraged workers, i.e. workers who gave up hope of finding work. It is perfectly plausible to assume that the subsistence of these people depends on social welfare benefits and other resources such as rural ties and solidarity funds etc.
Table 1 below summarizes the unemployment statistics we have noted so far.
Table 1. Unemployment and labor force statistics
(thousand persons)
November 2010
November 2011
Labor force
Labor force participation rate (%)
Employment rate (%)
Unemployment rate (%)
Non-agricultural unemployment rate (%)
Unemployment rate among the youth (%)
Persons not in labor force
Unemployed according to broad definition
Broader (real) unemployment rate (%)
Source: TSI labor statistics
Another important matter that we shall underline is the large magnitude of persons not classified in the labor force4 in Turkey. The persons who are not seeking a job but available to start a job are also a part of this category. 12.2 million of this population, which exceeds 27 million persons in total, are housewives, 4.4 million are persons in education or training, and the rest are the retired, disabled, ill or the elderly. These sections of the working class, which may be considered as inactive population, provide yet another potential labor force reserve to the capitalists apart from the unemployed. The ambition of the latest steps to be taken in the direction of imposing greater flexibility in the work regime in Turkey is to create a large labor force pool in which these sections of the working class could be mobilized when required. Of course, with the policies aiming to affiliate this population to the labor markets through atypical work, the government seeks both to increase labor force circulation and to exert downward pressure on the average wage, rights and working conditions of the laborers.
The so-called inactive population, which includes the underemployed5, seasonal workers and persons not seeking a job but available to start a job as well, is an important leverage for the capitalist class. Similarly, those who participate in the work life after being a part of the large pool of inactive population will be proletarianized under the ideological influence of the same section of the population. Therefore, we may say that after the assault of imposing flexibility is completed, the new working class will be even more alien to ideas of organization and struggle due to both objective and subjective factors.
A crucial issue worth to mention is that the inactive population waiting to be included in the labor force, the unemployed and the workers with below-subsistence wage levels have gradually become more dependent on social welfare benefits and informal solidarity networks such as religious communities and sects during the terms of Justice and Development Party (AKP) governments. In this respect, we may claim that the ideological deformation caused by lasting ties of the urbanizing working class in Turkey with the countryside has eventually been replaced by the deformation caused by social welfare benefits and communal solidarity and charity networks as the former had been eliminated with the so-called “reforms” made after 2001 crisis in Turkey.
The most up-to-date data on the social welfare benefits provided by the government belong to late 2009. Yet, the time trend of the data provides sufficient information to summarize the situation. According to official statistics, the amount of food aids granted by the government to local administrations in order to be distributed through Social Assistance and Solidarity Foundations was 35 million TL (approximately 23 million USD) in 2003, 55 million TL (approximately 34 million USD) in 2004, 90 million TL (approximately in 60 million USD) in 2005, 150 million (approximately 100 million USD) in 2006, 140 million TL (approximately 93 million USD) in 2007, 213.7 million TL (approximately 142 million USD) in 2008 and 382.4 million TL (approximately 255 million USD) in 2009. We observe a similar, rapidly increasing trend in the provision of coal aid as in the provision of food aid during the terms of the AKP government. The number of households benefiting from the coal aid exceeded 2.2 million in 2009. Since this figure has increased even more in 2010, we can say that we are talking about a welfare item regarding approximately 12 million persons or around 7 million electors. Table 2 shows the trend of coal aid provision from 2003 to 2009.
Table 2. Number of families benefitting from coal aid, 2003-2009
Amount of coal distributed (in tons)
Number of beneficiaries (household)
In terms of housing benefits, the government provided 919,900 TL (approximately 612,000 USD) to 415 persons in 2006, 2,503,950 TL (approximately 1,669,300 USD) to 642 persons in 2007, 40,461,955 TL (approximately 26,974,637 USD) to 27,906 persons in 2008 and 74,430,494 TL (approximately 49,620,329 USD) to 72,304 persons as of December 2009.
As these data suggest, the AKP government organized a broad social welfare network in which a large section of the population is included. Apparently, in the perception of these broad sections of the population, which as well include the working poor, the unemployed and the inactive population, the character of the government as a “service provider” has been replaced with the government as an “aid provider”. This is an important factor as it fits into the larger picture of changing perceptions on exploitation and inequalities. In this framework, the rights of the working class is not perceived as something achieved through struggle, but as something granted by the powerful. Hence, the public sphere gets wide-open for religious and reactionary organizations as the culture of “charity” is closely linked with religious ideology.
Besides social welfare benefits and charity networks, borrowing has become an important mean of subsistence for a large part of the working class and the mentioned population surrounding it. The banking reforms and economic conjuncture after 2001 crisis facilitated the access to personal consumer credits and credit cards have become one of the leading means of payment. Especially for the workers who do not receive their wages and salaries regularly, credit cards are essential. The highly indebted working class can be subjugated to the bourgeois ideology way more easily and strongly, and its interest shifts to sustaining the “economic stability” and the demands of the capitalist class so as to be able to roll-over its debts. In other words, to the highly indebted workers, the demands of their class enemies rather than their own seem much more relevant.
In order to give a rough idea about the level of indebtedness, allow me to refer to several statistics. In 2002, total amount of consumer credits were about 2 billion dollars, whereas it was over 80 billion dollars in 2010, and more than 90 billion dollars as of June 2011. The total liabilities of households were 129 billion TL in 2008, 147 billion TL in 2009 and 191 billion TL in 2010. During the same period, the ratio of households’ total liabilities to their disposable income has increased from 36 to 41 per cent. However, the ratio of interest payments to the disposable income declined from 5.2 per cent to 4.4 per cent due to falling interest rates. In other words, consumers are way more indebted, but they allocate a lesser part of their income to interest payments. Thus, it is plausible to claim that their sensitivity to the changes in interest rates has increased. Almost half of the consumer credits are housing loans, whereas 45 per cent consists of personal finance credits and 5 per cent consists of vehicle credits. The number of persons with non-performing credit card loans has increased from around 1.1 million in 2008 to 1.6 million in March 2011.
Any development that would disrupt the flow of social welfare benefits, charity and loans would mean a disaster for the workers who gradually become more and more dependent on these factors. Therefore, the stability of the bourgeois politics and abstinent life has become their sole expectation for future. These circumstances are further entrenched by the relative distance of young generations of workers to the idea of organization and struggle.
The despair of unemployed masses and the quest for a safe haven led by it have played a significant role for the prevailing system to build the mass bases of reactionism.
A third factor which plays an important part in the fragmentation, disorganization, assimilation and subjugation of the working class in Turkey is the expansion of informal work in all sectors. It is impossible to talk about any kind of freedom for informal workers, let alone the freedom to organize. Apart from unemployment, an important reason for the toiling masses in Turkey to be engaged in informal work is the high level of indebtedness. In Turkey, the government plays a decisive role in collecting the loans, as non-performing loans are cashed out through confiscation. The government regulates the regime of loan payments; hence workers who either try to escape from the probability that their wages are seized or make ends meet give consent to informal work with no rights at all.
Origins of the fragmentation of the working class in recent history
The fascist regime established after the coup d’état on 12 September 1980 paved the way for the Turkish bourgeoisie to raise its systematic attacks on the working class at a massive scale, and the advantage achieved by the capitalist class has been strongly reproduced in every sphere of life against the working class. The fascist regime did not only consist of legal arrangements or the fascistic practices carried out against working class organizations. More than that, it was an all-out ideological assault on the working class
If one of the fundamental pillars empowering bourgeoisie’s ideological assault was the policies that strengthen imperialism at large in our country and the region, the other was the increasing distance between the communist movement and the working class. This distance eventually resulted in the isolation of the working class.
After 12 September coup, the political parties, which should represent the working class and the economic organizations of the working class, trade unions, have been weakened. While the number of workers organized in trade unions was diminishing rapidly, the trade unions assisted the endeavors to isolate the working class from socialist politics. One shall remember that within the Turkish trade union movement today, there are only a few class-oriented cadres, who mostly became affiliated with the movement before 1980 when trade unions were not described as “supra-political” organizations. Furthermore, even those cadres are forced to a position at which they cannot take any initiative in order to protect themselves in the trade unions, which are pushed to a compromising line after the coup d’état.
It is worth to note that the workers’ resistances and actions, which occasionally set the agenda of the country after 1980, were carried through by the unions. The proletarianization of the country’s agenda by these actions had lasted for limited days. Although the achievements of the working class after these rallies had been limited, they should be deemed as important experiences. However, all of these experiences were doomed to the lack of persistence; neither Turkish left nor trade unions could manage to raise this siege. Furthermore, struggling workers could not prevent submissive trade unions to leave them in the lurch. In the final analysis, as the trade unions did not allow the workers’ uprisings to be politicized, hence could not carry them through, these actions did not leave deep marks in the collective memory of the proletariat as moments of transcending fragmentation and solidarity.
For instance, the recent uprising of tobacco workers at TEKEL started with the trade union’s (Tek Gıda-İş) decision to take action. As the workers pursued the decision even beyond the trade union itself and as their rally got affiliated with the communist movement, it was politicized, gained approval of the broader public and achieved the ability to organize the society. However, we should mention that, when considered in all respects, the intervention of the Communist Party of Turkey to establish the ties between the communist movement and TEKEL workers’ resistance had been insufficient, and the representation of the resistance did not materialize in the person of the TKP despite the strong intervention.
The disconnectedness between the working class and the communist movement is the main hindrance before the act of leaving deep marks in the collective memory of the working class. There is a clear connection between the trade union’s ambition to isolate the workers from communist politics and the fact that all significant workers’ resistances and actions carried out spontaneously and with the effort of trade unions were not conducted to win new fronts in the class struggle, but to maintain existing achievements. Such actions could not organize the society at large. A class-oriented line of struggle with broader claims, which will serve the working class to achieve new rights, could only be organized by the communist movement that represent political assertions on the future of the country.
Before going on with other aspects of the condition of the working class in Turkey, let me say a few more words on the situation of the so-called “progressive” trade union movement and the gradual liquidation of the class-oriented line in this section.
When the Confederation of Revolutionary Trade Unions6 (DİSK) was acquitted from all charges pressed on it in 1991, the new leadership of DİSK adopted the dominant political line of legitimizing the defeat of socialism prevailing in trade unions. This attitude has certainly played an important role in alienating the working class to economic and political struggle. As soon as the confederation was re-established, the new, social democratic leadership of DİSK condemned class-oriented trade unionism and adopted the ideology of so-called “contemporary” trade unionism. As they interpreted the demise of socialism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe as the end of class struggle, they expressed their willingness to come to terms with the capitalist class on every platform; hence lost a great deal of its members. As DİSK denied the fact that it is an organization of class struggle, it started to identify itself as a non-governmental organization necessary for establishing compromise and social dialogue. On this premise, the new DİSK could sidle with the organizations of the capitalist class more easily.
After 1980, the distance between the socialist left and the working class has increased even more when a large part of the left got liberalized and gave up pursuing revolutionary objectives. The liberalization of the Turkish left and the transformation of DİSK into a “non-governmental organization” had gone hand-in-hand.
In line with the so-called conception of contemporary trade unionism, which denies the fact that unions are class organizations, DİSK preferred “identity politics” instead of class politics. Thus, it did not steadfastly challenged privatization policies, and attributed positive characteristics to the so-called “new world order”. As it became more and more alienated from the class struggle, it started to appeal more and more to imperialist organizations such as the European Union and its branches in the trade union movement.
Alienation from revolutionary objectives and liberalization caused DİSK to lose a great deal of its members. DİSK is losing members even today, and the number of trade unions affiliated with DİSK, which organize genuine struggles is unfortunately very low. Today, DİSK and the left-wing trade union confederation among the public employees, KESK, do not fill a left-wing space in the trade union movement. The libertarian voices of the liberal-reactionary coalition in our country are quite far away from giving hope to the working class. These confederations are forced to retreat at a level such that they promise not to do anything other than demanding a new, democratic constitution despite grandiose attacks on the working class.
The sectoral segregation of the working class
Now, we may continue with the changes in the composition of the working class in Turkey in terms of economic sectors. This is not only important as regards the sectoral shifts in workers’ employment, but also in terms of the changes in the forms of employment.
According to the TSI data, in 2010, 25 per cent of the employment was in agriculture, 20 per cent in industry, 6 per cent in construction and 49 per cent in services. Most of the workers employed in industry work in the manufacturing industries, while 15 per cent are employed in the trade sector and 5 per cent in restaurants and entertainment.
The trends of the sectoral change in employment in our country point to the dramatic change in the Turkish economy and society. Two decades ago, i.e. in 1990, 46.5 per cent of workers were employed in agriculture, 15.8 per cent in industry, 5.7 per cent in construction and 32 per cent in services. In other words, in a relatively short period of time, the percentage of those employed in agriculture diminished about a half, while the number of those who are working in services increased drastically. Although the construction sector grew a great deal in years, its share in employment almost has not changed in the last twenty years.
Informal work has become a cost-reduction strategy for the Turkish capitalists. According to official data, there are 3 million 535 thousand wage earners under informal employment as of 2010, whereas the total amount of wage earners is 13 million 762. In other words, one out of four wage earners works under informal contracts, with no job security at all.
Once again, according to the official statistics, there are 3 million 37 thousand 447 workers employed in the public sector as of March 2011. This figure amounts to 13.31 per cent of total employment and 4.1 per cent of the total population. In historical terms, during the AKP’s terms of government, the share of the public sector in employment has declined from 15.2 per cent in 2002 to 13.31 per cent in 2011.
Figure 1: The Share of Workers Employed in the Public Sector in Total Employment (%)
Source: Turkish Statistical Institute
In general, public sector employees are employed under five different statuses: tenured personnel, personnel on contract, temporary personnel, permanent worker and temporary worker. About 70 per cent of the public employees (approximately 2 million) are employed under tenured status. However, with the so-called “Public Employees Reform” that has been on the agenda for quite a long time now, the government aims to shift most of these tenured personnel to the personnel on contract status. As a matter of fact, the number of employees working on contract has increased almost 100 per cent since March 2007, despite the fact that its share in total public sector employment is still low (10.93 per cent).
The condition of the Kurdish workers
Since 1960s, migration from Kurdish towns to especially large cities in the Aegean, Marmara and Mediterranean regions has been continuing. Before 1985 the major reason of migration was economic, but since then political reasons such as “forced migration” due to war have been added on this. Therefore, although migration from the Kurdish towns to the west is a phenomenon that has been going on for the last five decades, it has accelerated considerably since early 1990s. The change in the factors causing migration has not affected the outcomes significantly. The main difference for the Kurdish population is much more related with the rapid changes in the conditions of life and work in the towns where they migrate.
One shall underline that the character of the jobs the emigrant Kurdish people can find as well as the working conditions in the western towns has been changing in years. During the previous years of the migration movement, when the results of neoliberal policies and practices had not emerge in full scope yet, the emigrant Kurdish worker could usually find the opportunity to start a self-employed, though informal, job such as peddling or petite commodity production. This opportunity has either been eliminated almost totally or has become quite marginal starting from late 1980s to the period of the AKP. As informal, insecure, subcontracting and temporary, in other words atypical, work has become the rule of the day, and as such forms of employment has become the dominant type since early 1990s, the types of work Kurdish emigrants could find in the west have also changed. In other words, instead of being located in marginal urban employments, the Kurdish workers have become an inseparable part of the working class in Turkey. For the same reason, emigrant Kurds are getting proletarianized much more rapidly compared to the pace of proletarianization in the former years of migration. However, this is not an entirely new and peculiar phenomenon, but it is a part of the overall change of the working class in Turkey. However, the qualitative difference of the new forms of proletarianization from the classic processes is another topic of discussion.
The expansion of atypical forms of employment, the gradual increase in the quantity of workers in informal, insecure, subcontracting and temporary employment, is a general phenomenon. As the more dynamic sections of the working class, which try different ways of struggle, are those who work under such employment conditions as well as those who are under the threat of insecurity, the Kurdish workers have also become more visible in various experiences of organization and struggle.
The increasing number of Kurdish workers through migration to the metropolitan cities in the west or in large Kurdish towns such as Diyarbakır does not weaken, but quite the contrary; strengthen the class roots of the Kurdish problem. Compared to the previous period, proletarianized Kurds have become more open to class politics apart from identity politics.
An important specification that should be noted in relation to Kurdish workers is that, the processes of proletarianization among the Kurdish poor has been accelerating –this is in contradistinction with the thesis that claims the working class in Turkey has become “Kurdified”. Likewise, a new and common ground of struggle of Turkish and Kurdish workers, who are increasingly being subject to informal, insecure, subcontracting and temporary forms of employment, has been maturing despite the relative weakness of the opportunities of organization.
1.    Member of the Central Committee of Communist Party of Turkey
2.    Engels, F., “The Condition of the Working Class in England”, in Collected Works, vol.4, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, p.297.
3.    The broad definition of unemployment takes the following into account as well: the underemployed, those who are not actively seeking a job but available to start a job and seasonal workers. The real rate of unemployment is calculated according to the following formula: (the unemployed + the underemployed + those who are not actively seeking a job but available to start a job + seasonal workers) / (the labor force + those who are not actively seeking a job but available to start a job+ seasonal workers).
4.    This category includes people at working age, i.e. 15 years of age or over.
5.    The category of underemployment includes “time-related underemployment” and “inadequate employment”. The former is described as persons employed in the reference week who worked less than 40 hours as total, despite their willingness to work additional hours. The latter is described as persons employed in the reference week but were also looking for a job to replace present job or as an additional job within last 4 weeks and were available to start if could find.
6.    Interestingly enough, the official documents of DİSK in English refers to the organization as the Confederation of “Progressive” Trade Unions, despite the fact that its name is “Devrimci İşçi Sendikaları Konfedarasyonu” in Turkish, which can literally be translated into English as the Confederation of “Revolutionary” Trade Unions.


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