Concern among workers, unions grows as COVID-19 spreads in factories: report

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Vestel Workers at the protest in front of the Zorlu Holding building.

A deterioration in the situation of workers in Turkey, a country already notorious for a large number of fatalities in work-related accidents, is causing concern among unions and workers’ rights organizations amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF) reported.

According to a report by Turkey’s Health and Safety Labor Watch, 1,098 workers died in occupational accidents in the first half of 2020. The numbers have gone up in comparison to 2019, during which 1,004 workers died in the first half of the year. The deaths are concentrated in Turkey’s industrial cities of Sakarya, İstanbul, Kocaeli and Bursa.

Some of the main causes of work-related fatalities are crush syndrome, traffic-related incidents and falls, the report revealed. However, deaths due to COVID-19 have recently become worryingly predominant in factories. Two factories in particular stand out when it comes to COVID-19 contagion and consequent deaths.

One of the most salient of cases is the Vestel factory, which is located in the southern city of Mersin and which produces domestic appliances. There is a lack of clarity surrounding exactly how many workers have contracted the coronavirus in the factory.

Workers claim that seven of their colleagues have died of COVID-19, while the company has publicly announced that only two workers have succumbed to the virus.

“We have 17,000 workers in nine factories. Among these workers, 2 percent have been diagnosed with COVID-19. Two workers have died due to the virus,” Vestel said in a statement

During a protest in front of the company’s headquarters in İstanbul, unions pointed out that workers in Vestel factories are being forced to work without any preventative measures.

They added that the company’s only concern was increasing production rather than ensuring a safe work environment for their employees.

The Confederation of Revolutionary Workers Unions (DİSK), one of the biggest trade unions in Turkey, has stated that there are about a thousand COVID-19 cases among Vestel workers in Manisa, which has not prompted the company to halt production. The unions are demanding the immediate closure of the factories, stating that “human lives are more important than fridges.”

The workers at Vestel are disturbed that they are being blamed by the company’s department heads and foremen for bringing the virus into the factory. They claim the administration sees them as the cause of the outbreak instead of taking tangible steps to prevent the virus from spreading among the workers.

The impact of COVID-19 on workers’ health is not limited to Vestel. Unions point to the Dardanel fish company in the northwestern province of Çanakkale as another impacted factory. Dardanel produces canned fish such as tuna and has implemented a “closed-circuit” work system.

They adopted the system after 40 of their employees contracted the virus, and it means that the employees work during the day and stay in the factory’s quarantine dormitories at night. The system was put into place after production started slowing due to several workers being sent home with COVID-19.

More than 1,000 employees work together regardless of whether they are infected with COVID-19 and stay in the same dormitories without many preventative measures, according to a labor union, the city and the workers, the Evrensel daily reported.

One of the issues that the closed-circuit system has brought about is that the workers have to put in compulsory overtime of around 90 to 100 hours a month. They do not get paid for the overtime and risk losing their jobs if they refuse to work.

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