This year has witnessed a sharp spike in the number of strikes by organised labour in Turkey.
Istanbul, Turkey – Organised labour in Turkey is having a moment.
In January, after striking for more than two weeks, journalists at Istanbul’s BBC bureau secured a 32 per cent pay rise from management. Paid in Turkish lira, the workers had walked off the job after rejecting the company’s offer of a 20 per cent pay bump.
In another notch for labour’s belt, drivers at Turkish e-commerce giant Trendyol refused management’s offer of an 11 per cent pay hike, went on strike and won a 38.8 per cent wage increase.
While 30 percent plus wage gains appear extremely impressive in many parts of the world, in Turkey, they don’t even keep up with the cost of living.
The country’s currency lost more than 40 per cent of its value against the United States dollar last year following successive central bank interest rate cuts championed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Erdogan insists that lower interest rates fight inflation – a view that directly counters mainstream economic theory, which holds that lowering borrowing costs fuels rising prices.
Indeed, price pressures have continued into the new year with consumer price inflation topping 48 per cent in January, according to the government’s statistics office.
That is the highest level in two decades, but even that eye-watering figure may vastly understate the true rate of increase. The independent Inflation Research Group (ENAG) pegs Turkey’s inflation rate at a north of 114 per cent. The government disputes that figure.
No matter how you measure it, the purchasing power of Turks has been decimated. The government has taken steps to try and ease the burden. Erdogan said on Saturday that value-added tax on essential food items would be slashed from 8 percent to 1 percent and put private-sector businesses on notice that the government expects them to lower their prices to reflect the new policy.
The government also raised the minimum wage at the start of this year by 50 percent. But that gain has been largely offset by the government’s decision to switch to a graduated tariff system that substantially hikes prices for natural gas and electricity – a move that triggered protests in cities across the country.
“As cold weather moves to the heavily populated western parts of the country, the three-digit hikes to utility prices are affecting larger numbers of people,” said Atilla Yesilada, an economist and analyst at Global Source Partners.
Yesilada told Al Jazeera that Turkey is experiencing “an unusually large number of strikes” this year because private-sector pay increases in lower-skilled service jobs have not kept up with wage increases for civil servants and retirees.
At least 56 worker strikes broke out in Turkey between January 12 and February 10, according to the Labour Studies Group, an independent research initiative. That compares to 84 strikes the government tracked between 2016 and 2020.
Erkan Kidak, a research assistant at the Department of Labour Economics and Industrial Relations at Turkey’s Pamukkale University, said conditions are ripe for workers to demand a better deal.
“Two prerequisites must be met for the working class in Turkey to revolt,” he told Al Jazeera. “The first of these is the decline in purchasing power, and the second is the weakening of their bosses and the government. As both prerequisites have been fulfilled, workers employed in different sectors all over Turkey have revolted.”