Türkiye: Unions sow hope to build back better after devastating quake

After a devastating earthquake hit Türkiye on 6 February, BWI sent a solidarity mission to the country from 30 August to 1 September to provide assistance to its trade union affiliates and workers affected by the calamity, and identify key areas for reconstruction engagement. 

The mission, led by BWI General Secretary Ambet Yuson and Pierre Cuppens, BWI Deputy President and General Secretary of Belgium’s ACV BIE, was met with harrowing scenes of collapsed buildings and other infrastructure, which wiped out entire families and orphaned thousands of Turkish children. The delegation was met with the same heartbreaking scenes of rubble-filled places from Hatay, Defne, and Kahramanmaras. Six months after the country was rocked by one of the deadliest earthquakes of the century, the pain and trauma experienced by the Turkish people are still beyond words and description. 

BWI reported that Kahramanmaraş and Hatay are amongst the provinces that were severely hit by the calamity. It said that the BWI-affiliated Turkish Union of Road, Construction, and Building Workers (YOL-IS), as part of the Turk-IS confederation, rushed immediately to the earthquake-hit areas on the day of the disaster and mobilised resources. "Their selfless action somewhat helped survivors coped with their anguish. Their support for the workers and their families, and other people affected by the crisis will continue; knowing that they are not alone in their endeavor,” Yuson said. 

The mission’s first stop was in Hatay where it visited “container homes” in Defne, which were built with the help of AFAD, a governmental disaster management agency under the Ministry of Interior. Despite the various challenges, the local and national authorities are trying their best to provide support for their citizens. There are currently 35,000 container homes in Hatay. And the number continues to grow by the thousands every month. 

The delegation learned more about the enormous work of local and national governments in dealing with the unprecedented crisis, particularly from District Governor Melike Görgüç. It was updated on the immediate needs of Turkish workers and critical areas for solidarity groups to respond to. The mission also had the opportunity to talk to the survivors and listen to their demands and expectations. Many are still extremely traumatised, while carrying the tremendous grief over the loss of their loved ones and their properties.

The BWI mission also met with Hatay Governor Mustafa Masatli and Kahramanmaras Governor Mükerrem Ünlüe who were informed of the support and assistance provided by the BWI and its affiliates in Türkiye to help lessen the despair of the earthquake survivors, particularly workers who are trade union members. Both Governors expressed their satisfaction with the visit and said that they are fully committed to rebuild their respective cities.  

The mission observed that rebuilding activities, particularly the construction of temporary housing facilities and the repair of various infrastructure and housing projects, are currently at the top of the trade unions' priority list. In the midst of the disaster, BWI also stated that preserving labour rights, notably rights to collective bargaining and health and safety, remains a priority.

"From the rubble of ruined cities, the global trade union movement is obligated to help in rebuilding the Turkish working people's hope for a better future. Beneath the debris, we shall sow the seeds of progressive reconstruction. Amidst the terrible loss of life, we will not only rebuild, but build back better where workers can enjoy their rights unimpeded, and have a fairer chance of living truly meaningful lives,” Yuson said.

The delegation, which also includes Cihan Durmaz, ACV BIE Secretary and Jasmin Redzepovic, BWI  Global Director for Cement and Building Materials, supported the proposals put forward by Turkish trade unions to address the humanitarian crisis. They called for the recognition of those who perished from the earthquake as “martyrs,” the provision of a  “survivors' pension” to the families of all the calamity victims and  invalidity pensions to the injured, guaranteed public sector employment to the spouses or children of those killed and injured, severance pay to workers who lost their lives which will be granted to respective heirs, establishment of a Working Life Coordination Board, and the prioritisation of earthquake victims to receive community benefit programmes from the Employment Agency of Turkey (ISKUR). 

“We laud the strong leadership of YOL-IS, especially its president, Ramazan Agar, who also serves as Chair of the Board for the Emergency support of the TURK-IS Confederation. Their level of organising and mobilisation to help fellow workers in the middle of an unimaginable catastrophe is truly admirable and a major source of inspiration for the global trade union movement to emulate. Together, as trade unionists, we will sow hope and reap solidarity,” Yuson said.

The mission was carried out in collaboration with a local delegation led by YOL-IS. The YOL-IS delegation was led by its president, Ramazan Agar and comprised of Irfan Gültekin, Chair of YOL-IS Branch Mersin No. 1, Tuncay Ozbek, Chair of YOL-IS Branch Adana No. 1, Handan Kalkan, Chair of YOL-IS Women's Committee, and Ozgur Doruk, Expert, YOL-IS International Department.

On 6 February, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Türkiye early in the morning. It was one of the deadliest earthquakes of the century, with more than six hundred aftershocks recorded, including a 7.5 magnitude aftershock. The calamity has affected 14 million people living in 11 cities of south-eastern Türkiye.