Turkish authorities have arrested striking workers en masse at the construction site of the third Istanbul airport. On Saturday morning, police and special forces raided the workers’ dormitories and put at least 600 workers and union representatives in handcuffs. The workers had been on strike since Friday, protesting against the terrible working conditions and the hundreds of injuries and deaths at the building site, which have not been acknowledged by the construction companies or by the authorities.
Those who were arrested were taken to three different police stations, on buses provided by the construction companies. This just added insult to injury, since the straw that broke the camel’s back and caused the strike was the umpteenth accident on the way between the dorms and the work area, in which 17 workers were injured. “They couldn’t find enough buses to take us to work, but they found 27 buses to arrest us!” protested one of the strikers in a press interview.
According to the construction workers’ unions, the conditions at the construction site have dramatically worsened in recent months, as the deadline for the completion of the project, scheduled for Oct. 29, draws closer. The authorities are putting more and more pressure to be finished by the deadline.
In February, the Ministry of Labor issued a statement claiming that only 27 people had lost their lives at the airport construction site. This was an attempt to counter the relentless reports about the growing number of victims—hundreds, according to the reports in Turkish newspapers close to the workers’ movement, a number that fits the estimates of the construction workers’ union. There have been so many deaths that the construction site is now nicknamed “the Cemetery.” Not to mention the unhygienic conditions in the dilapidated dormitories, where there is no clean water and the mattresses are infested with fleas and ticks.
The workers tell stories about having to wash themselves in the ponds around the site, while the canteens never have enough food for the more than 30,000 workers employed by the mega-project. What’s more, their salaries are late: thousands of workers have gone without pay for at least six months because the collapse of the Turkish lira has brought the subcontractor companies to their knees, and they have stopped paying salaries as a result.
The companies and the authorities, however, have decided to respond to the strike with police violence. Two days ago, the first police intervention took place, using tear gas and water cannons. The workers were threatened with further interventions by the police, which considers the strike illegal. At dawn Saturday morning, the latest raid took place resulting in hundreds of arrests. A meeting followed between the leaders of the DevYapi and Insaat Sendika unions, the representatives of IGA Holding, which is in charge of the works, and police officials.
The workers put forward a list of demands to end the strike and return to work, which included: an end to firing striking workers, restoring those already fired to their jobs, new means of transport, the payment of back wages, the payment of salaries by bank transfer and not in cash as has been done so far, the payment of public holiday bonuses, one single canteen system for both foremen and regular workers, the provision of clothes and equipment for work according to law, the removal of IGA managers responsible for accidents, and immediate steps to solve the cases of what the unions are calling “occupational homicides.”
The company representatives have said they would examine the workers’ demands, but have still not made any guarantee that they would respect the rights claimed by the workers engaged in struggle.
The construction of the third airport in Istanbul, intended to be the largest in Europe and one of the largest in the world, is run by a consortium of Turkish companies thought to have close ties with the government. The project, which has been strongly fought against by environmental groups because of its impact on an enormous wooded area close to the metropolis and the need to cut down thousands of trees, is one of the cornerstones of the large public works program planned by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.