TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr.
Januar 2010

Sektion 8.1. Prekäre Lebensbedingungen, unsichere Arbeitsverhältnisse – Expansion sozialer Ungleichheiten. Auf dem Weg von der Peripherie zum Zentrum?
Sektionsleiter | Section Chair: Rolf-Dieter Hepp (Freie Universität Berlin)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Transformation of Work Conditions and its Implications for
Relations and Trade Unionism in Turkey

Sibel Kalaycıoğlu and Kezban Çelik (both: Middle East Technical University, Ankara, Turkey)

Email: and



Transformation of work and working process during the late 1970s in Europe brought an organizational restructuring in the workplace relations. The traditional forms and qualifications of work have changed rapidly and replaced by precarious and causal forms of work on the one hand and multi-skilled, high paid jobs on the other. Stressing global and national macro-economic processes determining the economies of European countries, the daily life experiences of workers have also been changing. The burden of everyday life was attributed to the individuals who were kept responsible for developing successful coping strategies. Those who can not cope with everyday life successfully are considered to create a “risk” for the society. Besides, both the transformation of work and precarious work experiences as well as the individualized burden of everyday life struggles, effected the organizational restructuring of the trade unions and unionization. These trends will be discussed with reference to our research which was conducted in 2005 and 2006 in Turkey. We will stress the changing “experiences of workers” within transformation of work and unionism.

Two periods are distinguished: (1) the period before 1980 and (2) the period after 1980. 1980s is a period of export orientation and implementation of neo-liberal policies in Turkey which portray a severe contrast to the pre-1980 period. Unionism in Turkey clearly had a strong social-/political/-economic function before 1980 which changed drastically afterwards. To gain further insights into organization and opposition of the “working class and its experiences of unionism” life histories of workers (equal share of men and women) in different sectors (formal as well as informal) and in different cities of Turkey (Ankara, Bursa, and Istanbul) were collected. The socialization through/in the family and peers plays an important role in forming one’s attitudes towards unions. Furthermore, the growing precarious economy and more and more workers working in informal jobs, the flexibilisation of the economy, growing unemployment, and ongoing decline in social welfare provisions has resulted in a loss in trust in unionism. The role of unions in organizing and bargaining were weakened mainly by increase of work in unskilled jobs, usually in the informal economy, and on the other hand among white collar service workers.

Typical for the period before 1980 was a strong positive attitude towards unionism among the skilled, manual (male) labour, and among workers of the public sector. Whereas after 1980 this positive feeling declined very fast and the workers more and more became alienated from their unions. This also initiated a major risk for the workers who are abandoned in the labour market left to the mercy of capital. At this point the effectiveness of “activation policies” and “labour market monitoring” applications in line with European Employment Strategy will be also discussed.



During the 1980s, many sociologists and other social scientists argued that industrial society had been transformed in a fundamental way and was converging into a new society. ‘Post-industrial society’, ‘information society’, ‘knowledge society’, ‘post modern society’, ‘late capitalism’, ‘flexible capitalism’ are used for understanding a new society. Whatever name is given to it, this phase has been accepted as turning point which led to radical changes in society. In the context of radical changes the two transformations are very important for understanding new society. These fundamental changes were caused and/or forced by all-embracing trends called “globalisation” and “individualisation” (c.f. Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2002). One is related with the expansion of a world economy, increasingly based on information and knowledge; and the second is related with the emergence of a social environment, in which increasing public uncertainties.

It means that in this society the dissolution of traditional structural elements of industrial society has led to more uncertain, fragmented and ultimately individualized transition processes (Beck 1992).Therefore there are the increased share of service jobs in labour markets and the increased need of knowledge and human capital for professional and technical occupations. Under this new condition, jobs “are likely to involve more self-determination and competion, to be more fluid in terms of the nature and the scope of the employment relationship and more project or team-oriented to be increasingly integrated into networks” (Schmid & Gazier, 2002). As contemporary capitalism alters the conditions of work, our connection to the workplace becomes more tenuous. As observed by Sennett (1998), ‘new capitalism’ is turning work from something that was once considered stable and predictable into a source of profound insecurity. As the workforce becomes increasingly contingent and people change jobs more frequently, employees are told there is ‘no long term’. He concludes that the new conditions of work -insecure, flexible, no jobs for life- are fragmenting and corroding key elements of human character.

Under the new system, globalization is given mobility to capital whereas labour is still bounded. As Manuel Castells has put it: ‘At the dawn of the Information Age, a crisis . . . is voiding of meaning and function the institutions of the industrial era’ (1997: 354). With this radical change, welfare state has been losing ground, and the state’s power and place on labour market has been weakening. Instead of full employment, there is recognition that full employment may be unsustainable and part of unemployment is structural. Flexible capital has been eroding organized labour power. If the analysis is restricted to the period from 1985 to 1995, we can see a marked

decline in unionization among wage and salaried employees in the UK (–27.7 per cent), Germany (–17.6 per cent), Japan (–16.7 per cent) and the USA (–21.1 per cent) (ILO, 1998). Therefore new methods for inclusion have been produced –education, training, skill development, being entrepreneur etc- predominantly based on individual effort and refer to more individual responsibility. With regard to both labour market and social policy, activation policies are very popular. Employability is the main tool of activation policy.

Therefore, by the mid-1990s, Europe had to deal with intolerable levels of unemployment while at the same time find ways to restructure employment relations and welfare systems to take account of internal changes and external shocks (Esping-Andersen, 1996). Traditional European industrial relations systems were organized to protect a largely male workforce, usually employed on a full time basis and often at a single firm for life. On the other hand, the new employment policy guidelines include several broad areas that focus on how to manage social risks in a new more flexible labour market situation to create more and better jobs with greater social cohesion. The term flexicurity is increasingly used as a concept to describe and classify different labour markets according to combinations of flexibility and security (EC, 2006). This new approach argues that differing degrees of balance between flexibility and security can be achieved in any context by the interaction of four key elements: sufficiently flexible contractual arrangements, effective active labour market policies, credible lifelong learning systems, and modern social security systems. According to this approach, countries can be developed different combinations of these policies to response the new employment and social challenges. Because countries are characterised by specific social, political and institutional settings then they may respond very different to the same problem.



Until 1980s Turkey’s economy was identified with a type of capital accumulation named import-substitution industrialisation. Its basic characteristics were ‘protectionism’, ‘state involvement’, and ‘regulated markets’. Towards the end of 1970s, crises emerged both in the economic and political areas in Turkey. End of 1970s were difficult times not only for Turkey but also for other countries due to globalization and technologic changes. As discussed above it led to changes in mode of production then society as a whole -from production society to the service society. Thus, both national and global crises led to the radical changes in 1980 which shifted the trajectory of economic policies from import substitution to export-oriented growth in Turkey. There has been a widespread restructuring of the economic policy and neo-liberalism has become the new order of this period. This new order brought increasing foreign trade, interest rate liberalization, deregulation, privatization, decreases in state expenditures on social services and a liberal foreign exchange regime instead of the state interventionism of the previous period (Balkan&Savran, 2002). ‘Free market economy’, ‘opening to outside’ and ‘removing bureaucratic barriers’ became the popular notions in Turkey of 1980s. It was claimed that market forces have their own adjusting capacities and this replaced the idea of a state providing welfare and justice to the people. Instead of a state considering the distribution of income, a free market that is bringing productivity and efficiency was promoted. A powerful bureaucracy was not seen as the precondition of development; it was an obstacle for the operation of the free market (Öncü&Gökçe, 1991).

Parallel to this shift, some de-regulation and privatisation efforts started. It was considered that lower wages would not, by itself, fully ensure lower costs of production; to make it sustainable, it was also necessary to place some control on rights for unionisation and collective bargaining. Such an operation could be managed rather easily under the military regime. Trade union activities were suspended while collective bargaining was replaced by ‘compulsory arbitration’. The new Constitution of 1982 introduced new arrangements relating to industrial relations and put some limitations to the exercise of right to strike, which are still disputed today. In addition to the Labour Act (No 1475) of 1971, the Unions Law (No 2821) and the Law on Collective Bargaining Agreement, Strike, and Lockout (No 2822) were enacted in 1983 under this environment. Further, the firm stand of governments to maintain the ‘stability package’ led to a steadily falling trend in real wages in the period 1980-1988 (Cihangir, 1996:145).

The low incidence of collective bargaining reflects the restrictive rules regarding the authorization of bargaining agents under the 1983 Collective Labour Agreements, Strikes, and Lockouts Act (Act 2822). This legislation imposes two requirements on a workers’ organization to qualify as the authorized bargaining agent in a workplace or group of workplaces. First, it must represent at least 10 percent of the total employed in the relevant industry. Second, it must represent at least 50 percent of the employees in the workplace(s). Presently there are over one hundred employee unions active in the private sector, and over fifty in the public sector. A majority of these are affiliated with one of three labour union confederations: TÜRKİŞ (the Confederation of Turkish Trade Unions), DİSK (the Confederation of Revolutionary Trade Unions) and HAKİŞ. A fourth, MİSK, is considerably smaller, and is more active as a political organization than a union confederation. On the employers’ side, twenty employer unions function under a single confederation, TİSK (the Turkish Confederation of Employer Associations). There were 2.95 million union members in Turkey, according to the July 2005 labour statistics of the Ministry of Labour and Social Security. Unionization is essentially a public sector phenomenon in Turkey. Only 4 percent of private sector wage employees are union members, compared to 28 percent in public enterprises and 51 percent in government (2002 HIES). Moreover, even among active trade union members, only about 700,000 are covered by a collective agreement.

At present, Turkey is in a historical process of transformation where employment shifts from agriculture to industry and services still continue. Linked to this process, it has experienced increasing unemployment in the last two decades. Leaving aside marginal drops in the early 80s and 90s, the rates of unemployment in Turkey is on continuous rise throughout the planned period. Specific factors contributing to this picture can be listed as rapid population growth, poor arrangements regarding labour markets, weakness of vocational training, high rates of urbanisation observable from the early 50s, obstacles in front of investment that may generate employment and low levels of productivity and economic growth. Particularly working age population is increasing more rapidly than natural population growth due to demographic transformation process, which first started in the 50s and continued up to the 80s despite some significant regional variations. In addition to this demographic factor, the structure of land proprietorship explains a large but unproductive agricultural employment. The structure dominant in the Turkish rural sector is that of small proprietorship. Since this structure is not conducive to economies of scale and full mechanisation, labour productivity could increase only marginally and wage labour remained extremely limited. State protection and agricultural subsidies also played their role in keeping the fall in the share of rural population at slow rates. Recent withdrawal of the state from its traditional role as a ‘sponge’ absorbing surplus labour in the labour market leads to further shrinks in government employment and therefore aggravates the problem of unemployment. The largest sector of employment in Turkey is still agriculture. Of the 35 percent aged 12 and above, 40 percent are engaged in agriculture. The next-highest poverty rate is that of construction. The poverty rate is lowest for mining and quarrying. After agriculture, the other significant sectors in terms of employment are manufacturing, and wholesale and retail trade.

Employed Labour Force by Employment Status, 2004

All wage/salary employees



Regular employee
Casual employee









Unpaid family workforce



Total employed workforce



Source: SIS, HLFS March, 2005


Membership in Social Security Institutions, 2003




Social Security Institution (SSK)



Retirement Fund (ES)



Bag Kur



Private institutions



Not registered



Total employed workforce



Source: Labour Force Survey

Most recent World Bank report on Turkish labour market (2005) highlighted the following: 

The Turkish labour market, therefore, has the following characteristics:

Today as a candidate country, Turkey is to develop and improve its employment policy and institutions in line with European Employment Strategy (EES) that was developed in order to ensure converging employment policies within the union with the participation of social partners.


Method of the study

The aim of the study is to understand workers’ experiences before and after 1980 which is an important milestone for the restrictions on unionisation rights in Turkish work history.  The research is done in Ankara, Istanbul and Bursa with two groups of workers who have entered work life before and also after 1980. Using oral history technique 40 in-dept interviews were conducted where recent past has been investigated through the worker’s memories. The factors involved in workers’ experiences and its time effects are the focus of the  analysis, and the perceptions of workers about the role of unions appear as a useful indicator for clarifying continuities and discontinuities on workers’ experiences.


Main findings of the study

The first finding of our study is that workers experiences are heterogeneous. The following factors are influential in the experience of their workmanship and union perceptions:

These factors are influential in the experience of workers unionship and their perceptions on trade union.

The second finding of our research is related to the structural determinants. There are structural reasons which have an affect on worker’s union perceptions:

As we discussed above, 12 December of 1980 was the turning point for understanding the experience of workers related with the trade union perception in Turkey. With 1980s, we can mention two important developments in the labour market. The first development is related to the new organization of the large industrial establishments. In those workplaces  human resources departments are established to release the tensions and also to function as the mediators between the employer  and the workers instead of the unions.  The second development is related with the emergence of a large informal sector in Turkey together with the shrinking of the formal sector. So more and more workers were able to find jobs in the informal sector, namely in the secondary labour markets…

Human resource departments in workplaces are very influential on worker’s perception about the necessity of unions. Especially young workers who have been starting work  life during 1990s, think  that:

“Now we have tea hour every day at ten a clock, we have really nice lunch and dinner. Our human resource department is organizing many social activities for us like picnic, concert, and theatre and so on. We have tennis court, basketball couth, football court etc. We have a private health insurance. Therefore we do not feel absence of union in our workplace. Actually there is no necessity of trade union in workplaces like us” (women, 36 age, worker in Karel).

Similar tendency can be found among  white-collar workers. If white-collar worker are working in service sector and/or big companies they are  less ideological and focusing mainly on their own career.

If workers are working in small workplaces in informal sector, then their opinion, behaviour and perception are determined by the informal networks. There is no trade union in small workplaces in informal sector. Unions underestimate the capacity of informal sector workers to organise themselves as well. In this sector, employers are hiring workers by using informal networks. Employer-employee relationships are shaped by patronage types. Informality starts with the finding work and then continues. Precarious works are common in informal market. Therefore people think that:

…here (workplace) everybody knows each other very well. Man (employer) gives bread and food to us. And of course we have to can we do strike against him? It is not good and it is not suitable for us” (man, 52 age, primary school, gatekeeper).

The other important issue is related with the unemployment dimension. Unemployment is high in Turkey. Insider/outsider debate is used by employer for a discipline technique. Workers are exposing to these threat heavily. Unemployment increased and, with a declining ability to provide job security, membership in trade unions dropped:

to become organized, it is really funny. Do you know why? Because we are working really low price and we are fired by employer anytime. There is no work outside and patron knows these, he says ‘do you know how many people are waiting at the end of the door’” (man, 32 age, Koç Electric). 

The third finding of our study is related with the trust between the workers and the trade unionist.

In the old times from the union I would understand the organization which protects workers’ rights in all conditions,  now  I can only see the union patrons. They are travelling with Mercedes, staying in five star hotels,visiting discos so they are such kind of patrons not interested  with the workers’ rights anymore. This is the difference between the past and the present of unions. So there is no union protecting workers’ rights. In fact,  after 12 th of September ( the coup) unionism is dead. In the old days hwen there is a strike the unions paid the wages for those workers on strike even if it takes one year. And they take it back after the signing of the collective bargaining. Now, if the workers go to strike they have to stop at most in one month because of hardships and also because the employers buy the union leaders. The employers have their own unions also. They sit together with the unions and make a bargaining without considering the workers’  demands. So I do not trust the unions at all today” (51 of age, male, graduate of high school, retired as construction worker).



Past two decades, trade unions have been blamed for creating rigidities and distortions in the labour market and leading to slow down employment creation and economic growth. However, workers’ experiences are increasingly defined by higher unemployment rates, extended informal sector and low income jobs in the labour market. The experience of unionisation seems to be hit dramatically by the gradual alienation of workers with the loss of trust between the workers and the trade unions.


8.1. Prekäre Lebensbedingungen, unsichere Arbeitsverhältnisse – Expansion sozialer Ungleichheiten. Auf dem Weg von der Peripherie zum Zentrum?

Sektionsgruppen | Section Groups | Groupes de sections

 Inhalt | Table of Contents | Contenu  17 Nr.

For quotation purposes:
Sibel Kalaycıoğlu and Kezban Çelik: Transformation of Work Conditions and its Implications for Employee-Employer Relations and Trade Unionism in Turkey - In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

Webmeister: Gerald Mach     last change: 2010-01-27