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ICEM lends on-site support to workers organising with Turkey’s Petrol-İş

A two-year organizing campaign conducted by ICEM Turkish affiliate Petrol-İş, the Oil, Chemical, and Rubber Workers’ Union, has faced serious difficulties at targeted worksites. The anti-union Turkish labor legislation, which has been criticized by the ILO and whose major conventions have been ratified by Turkey, as well as hostile employer actions are the main reasons why.

Petrol- İş has been picketing several factories to showcase this absence of genuine union rights. The ICEM was recently in Turkey supporting the union’s organizing drives. General Secretary Manfred Warda and Director of Industry and Corporate Affairs Kemal Özkan visited in early July to lend support.

They first visited workers at Polyplex in the Corlu free trade zone, close to the Bulgarian border. Workers at Polyplex were in their 240th day of struggle after joining Petrol-İş in November 2010. When management learned of the drive, they used different tactics to get rid of the union, including firing 22 workers seen as union activists.

The Turkish Ministry of Labour and Social Security authorized Petrol-İş as the lawful bargaining unit on 5 January 2011. But managers immediately used the anti-labour provisions of Turkish legislation to delay collective bargaining by filing an appeal at a local labor court alleging that Petrol- İş had not signed up the required majority of workers. This stood as clear signal that Polyplex Europa would not recognize the union’s existence. Such an appeal could run for two years, thus denying workers union rights. Both ICEM and Petrol-İş asked the company for a meeting to reconcile, but Petroplex consistently refused. Union representatives met with the General Consulate of India in Istanbul and stressed that the current situation brings a bad public image to the reputation of India.

“I am here on behalf of the entire ICEM family to show our solidarity,” said Warda. “We applaud the workers’ honorable struggle and we vehemently protest the Indian company Polyplex because of disrespect to workers’ rights guaranteed by international conventions.”

Warda and Özkan later visited dismissed workers at the Aroma-Polifarma pharmaceutical company in the same region. A large majority of 300 workers at Aroma-Polifarma became Petrol-İş over the last few weeks. This came because of inhumane working conditions such as extended working hours, up to 16 hours per day; short breaks, only a maximum 30-minute break for lunch; inadequate drinking water in which some workers developed kidney problems; and most shamefully, cameras in the dressing rooms, even in the women’s room.

The day before the ICEM visit, Polifarma dismissed some 150 workers because they were suspected of joining the union. In his letter to the owners of the company, the Kumrulu family, Warda said the sackings are clear violations of basic human and labour rights which can never be accepted or tolerated. “I am sure most of these practices are subject to measures in Turkish penal and labor legislation,” he wrote. “Under all these circumstances, on behalf of the whole ICEM family, I vehemently protest all that you’ve done … and urge you to immediately” cease and desist.

The ICEM delegation also went to the city of Gebze where dismissed workers of German-based Bericap were in their 200th day of resistance to the company’s mass dismissals. Petrol-İş organised workers at Bericap in July 2009, following dismissal of six workers initally for attempting to unionise. On 26 January 2010, a collective agreement was agreed to in hopes of a mature labour relations relationship.

But local management never intended to fully recognize the existence of Petrol-İş and began implementing a hostile attitude against the union and union members. Under such negativity, four union members were dismissed without justification on 25 December 2010 with no union rights being adhered to. In response, some 100 Petrol-İş members started an industrial action in front of the workplace. Local management terminated employment contracts of all those protesting and failed to provide any severance compensation. The Bericap situation became a prominent case in Turkey, which created an environment against the company and workers won the support of different community groups. (A short video of a Bericap Manifestation can be seen here.) 

ICEM and Petrol-İş several times tried to initiate dialogue with Bericap in order to reinstate the dismissed workers, but reciprocal good will from the company never resulted. ICEM also informed its German affiliate, the IGBCE, the German Metalworkers’ Union, IG Metall, and the International Metalworkers’ Federation (IMF), since the German unions represent workforces there. Labor inspectors appointed by the Labour and Social Security Ministry recently disclosed their report after investigations. The report clearly states that local managers abused workers’ rights. Bericap Turkey is now liable and must pay compensation to the dismissed workers. In addition, local management must pay penalties since deficiencies and legislative misalignments were found during the inspection.

“Bericap cannot behave irresponsibly to its employees,” said Warda in his address to striking workers on the picket line. “We will give a last chance to the company to solve this problem in a peaceful way. Otherwise an international ‘shame campaign’ will be launched.” Immediately after the visit, ICEM sent another letter to Bericap Managing Director Alexander Krautkramer to take immediate actions to restore good-faith labour relations.

“We are pleased to have the support and solidarity of the ICEM in these struggles,” said Petrol-İş President Mustafa Öztaşkın. “Our international partner has offered tremendous support in all our organizing drives and we know success will come with global solidarity from all workers of these companies worldwide.” (18 July 2011)