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From Turkey to London 2012; campaigning for a sweat-free Olympics

Workers making sportswear for the major brands should have their rights respected. But this continues to be a distant reality for many workers. With the London Games just around the corner, Olympic values like respect, equality and fair play, should extend to the workers who help make the Games possible.

Asalettin Arslanoglu

Interview with Asalettin Arslanoglu, Director of Organising, Textile, Knitting and Clothing Workers’ Union of Turkey (TEKSIF)

How did you become involved in trade union activities?

I first became interested in workers’ rights when I was in secondary school - I leafleted for unions outside factory gates and got involved with associations working to protect workers’ rights. By the time I’d finished school I’d been arrested and tortured seven times for leafleting, attending funerals of workers’ leaders and participating in illegal demonstrations; trade unions were illegal from 1981-1991.

What are the main issues for workers?

Low wages

In Turkey, the government’s official poverty line is 922 TRY (£325) per month for individuals, yet the legal minimum wage in Turkey is 680 TRY* (approx £222) per month for a 45-hour week. People can’t survive on these poverty wages.

Every year, the government reviews the minimum wage and union officials are part of this process, but they are outnumbered by employers and government representatives. In the run up to these reviews, TEKSIF mobilises workers to build support for an increase in the minimum wage, organises demos and carries out research on wages and living standards to make the case for a wage that allows people to live in dignity.

*As of October 2011.

Union busting

Union reps have little or no access to factories even though Turkey has signed up to ILO conventions on respecting the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining. So, it’s extremely difficult to organise workers and educate them about their rights.

For example, Gelal, one of Turkey’s largest sock manufacturers, makes Adidas-London 2012 socks. Gelal supplied Adidas and Nike and sourced thread from a company called Elasteks. Last year, when 53 workers formed a union in Elasteks, the employer rounded up workers and told them, ‘…even if you bring the prime minister here, we won’t accept a union, you’ll all lose your jobs.’

Some workers cancelled their union membership, and 22 workers were sacked for their trade union activities. TEKSIF has taken legal action on behalf of 19 workers and told Adidas and Nike about the situation. Adidas’ response was that they didn’t deal with Elasteks, and tried to avoid any dialogue. Nike, however, encouraged Gelal’s owners to meet TEKSIF which organises in the factory. Gelal stopped buying thread from Elasteks after the company refused access to Adidas representatives and auditors from the Fair Labour Association. The court case is ongoing. See article -The Independent

In another example, after TEKSIF organised workers in a factory making Reebok products, the owner shut the factory, opened another, transferring the workers, but then declared bankruptcy. TEKSIF raised this with Adidas, which now owns Reebok, but the response from Adidas’ head office was that TEKSIF should write to them in English. Seven years on and the workers who lost their jobs haven’t received any back-pay.

When we raise concerns about union busting with brands, attempts at resolution are spread out over such a long time. Adidas doesn’t even usually acknowledge that there are problems in its supply chain and doesn’t engage with TEKSIF when problems arise. Brands require that there is a worker rep in their supplier factories, and that s/he attends meetings with management. But, there are real questions over if and how these worker reps are elected.

To prevent problems like these occurring and ensure that workers have an independent voice in the workplace, brands should require suppliers to sign agreements with unions to give them factory access. Brands should also require suppliers to inform workers about their workplace rights, including the right to join or form a union and bargain collectively. Unions should be allowed to have a session with new workers as part of their induction, and then workers should be free to choose if they want to join the union or not.

It’s still very difficult for a worker to join a union, though. For a union to be recognised in a factory, 50% of the workers have to sign up, but before workers can join they have to visit a notary and pay 40 TRY (approx £14). The Department for Work and Social Security informs employers once the 50% threshold has been reached, but the employer can challenge the figures, which can lead to a court case, and during this time, workers can be intimidated into changing their minds about joining a union.

To deal with some of the challenges to organising workers, TEKSIF works in local neighborhoods reaching workers by building relationships with local community leaders, imams and teachers who are sympathetic to protecting and defending workers’ rights.

Working hours

The average working week is 45 hours, with an 8-hour day. However, the norm is a 12-hour working day, with workers given about 1 day’s notice to do overtime. Some work 24-hour shifts, and if workers refuse to do overtime, they can lose their jobs.

Audits don’t give a true reflection of factory life

Nike and Adidas suppliers are audited. Where TEKSIF reps are present in factories, auditors never bother to speak to them as part of their investigations and monitoring. Auditors can randomly select workers to be interviewed, but on the way to being interviewed workers may be told that what they say isn’t confidential, and if they say something negative about the factory, they can lose their jobs.

Asalettin Arslanoglu was guest speaker for the Playfair 2012Â universities speaker tour in October 2011.

Background info: TEKSIF has 248,000 registered members.

November 29th, 2011

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