Sunday, December 14, 2008

Solitary Sit-In Spotlights Rights in Turkey

Solitary sit-in spotlights rights in Turkey

OneWorld US, AFL-CIO,, International Trade Union Confederation




Nicholas Birch

Soft-spoken Emine Arslan doesn't look like the sort of person who likes to kick up a fuss. But her solitary 150-day sit-in outside a prominent Istanbul factory that supplies leather goods to international brands like Prada and Mulberry has attracted unprecedented domestic and international attention to labor rights issues in Turkey.

A mother of three from the conservative Black Sea region, Arslan, 44, had been working at Desa for eight years when she was sacked on July 1 without receiving any kind of severance package. Desa management accused her of negligence. Arslan says her dismissal came just days after she joined a trade union to fight for better working conditions.

"They made us work 60, 70, sometimes even 80 hour weeks for 485 lira [$300] a month", she says. "I had had enough, so I joined up and began encouraging my friends to do so too."

As the bold red slogan on her tunic makes clear, union membership is a constitutional right in Turkey. But it remains a common cause of dismissal.

Forty-one union members have been protesting daily outside the gates of Desa's other factory since they were sacked this May. A sit-in triggered when one of Turkey's biggest dairy product companies fired 500 trade unionists last December is on-going. Such mass protests rarely make news in Turkey. But Arslan's solitary vigil has attracted widespread attention.

Her visiting book contains messages from a German MP and officials from European lobby groups and trade unions, as well as from visitors from all over Turkey. She has become a figurehead for Turkey's increasingly vocal feminist movement, which turned its attention to the issue of women's workplace rights only recently.

In an unusal move, a leading columnist for Turkey's most popular Islamic newspaper lambasted fellow conservatives for ignoring Arslan's plight. "Why has Emine Arslan found no support from lovers of a religion which compares those silent in the face of injustice to tongueless devils," Nihal Bengisu asked in Zaman on November 11. "Are women with headscarves only suitable victims when they are banned from universities?"

Regarded as a near-synonym for communism, trade unionism has traditionally been regarded with deep suspicion on Turkey's Islamic-minded right.

An official at Arslan's union, Nuran Gulenc has no doubt that the publicity surrounding Desa today is linked to the fact it is a supplier to international brands. "Without Emine, though, we could not have got as far as we have," she says. "A lone woman protesting for 150 days - that is unheard of."

In late November, the Brussels-based International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers Federation joined the debate, branding Desa "the unacceptable face of the leather fashion industry" and calling on its clients to push for improved working conditions.

Efforts to form a coalition of buyers, Federation chief Neil Kearney adds, have been slowed by unwillingness on the part of Mulberry and Desa's biggest client, Prada.

Both Mulberry and Prada deny the allegations and point to an independent audit of the Turkish company this September that showed no proof of poor working conditions, or anti-unionism on the part of management.

"Prada has taken all initiatives to be reasonably sure that all is well at Desa," Andrea Gaudenzi, a spokesman for the Italian brand, says. "If Desa is proven to have broken the law, we will not hesitate to end our relations with it."

"We have been working very closely both with other brands and the union, and will continue to do so", says Mulberry's supply director Ian Scott.

But a recent news conference given by Desa's chairman raised more questions than it answered. "Union membership is our workers' fundamental right," Melih Celet insisted on November 20, adding that he only learned sacked workers were union members "when the issue went to court."

This April, however, Desa workers taped his son Burak Celet, Desa's general manager, warning staff that "even if all 701 workers in the factory - including myself - join the union, I will never accept it."

A leading opposition MP meanwhile denied Melih Celet's claim that, after visiting the factory, he had personally apologized to the industrialist for earlier supporting protestors.

Union representatives say the news conference was a strategic mistake, and express optimism that Desa will soon sit down to talks with workers. Arslan certainly hopes so. Her sit-in has earned her visits to the police station and a fine for obstructing a public by-way.

With her case in court, she says she has twice turned down Desa's unofficial offers of compensation - $5,000-worth mid-July and $18,750 in October. She intends to continue her protest until Desa re-employs her as a union member. "I have a responsibility for my friends inside", she explains. "I was the one who encouraged them to seek their rights. I couldn't live with the thought that I was responsible for their being sacked."

She looks up at the grey November sky and buries her chin further into her coat.

"The colder it gets, the harder I find it", she says. Latest News, Groups Working on Labor Worldwide Latest News, Groups Working on Turkey

Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at]


"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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