By Eda Sevinin
On May 8, 2016 the Turkish parliament passed an ominous law known as “labor-for-rent and flexible work”: the ‘slavery law’ as it’s otherwise known by the labor unions.
The regulation brings forth extreme and possibly irreversible consequences for the country as a whole, but in particular, for the most vulnerable in the society, women, migrants and the precariat – the class defined by what is known in more technical language as “temporary agency work” that is both insecure and short-term.
It is surprising – if not shocking – that the law did not create more controversy. Unfortunately, it was well obscured by more pressing and equally controversial developments in the political agenda of Turkey. This is despite the fact that the “labor-for-rent” law will have a more serious and immediate impact on the lives of citizens than many of these other developments.
In the midst of chaotic political developments in Turkey, which in recent weeks has seen the legal immunities of MPs lifted and the imposed resignation of now ex-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, triggering a cabinet reshuffle, the bill was passed at six in the morning and covered with equanimity in the mainstream media. The bill did not resonate in public discussions despite the unified resistance of all three opposition parties (the CHP, MHP, and HDP) in Parliament.
Now we must all wait for the devastating if predictable repercussions.
This law had been in fact been rejected in 2009, by former President Abdullah Gül, who claimed it was in open exploitation of labor and detrimental to human dignity. The Court of Appeals also ruled the law to be illegal. However, this time, it gained a majority in the Parliament and was enforced after President Erdoğan’s approval.
As controversial as it is curious, the law was codified right after the work permit for migrants were granted. Labor camps for seasonal workers in different agricultural regions seem to be the early experiments this law will bring about.
In fact, the law speaks of an encompassing dual attack against workers: rendering any sort of labor mobilization almost impossible while at the same time increasing violations of social rights such as a regular salary, insurance, pensions, definitive work hours, and work-place security.
It’s clear then that those already disadvantaged by the processes of capitalist production will be disadvantaged even further. It is anticipated that women will be the first target of this labor-for-rent process, since it is designed to target lower salaries and more flexible work hours. Alongside women, another target I believe will be refugees – who number around 3.5 million in Turkey.
The devil in the details
Given the reigning media silence, let’s have a quick look at exactly what changes the law enacts.
First, it annuls employment relations as we know them. Even though this regulation does not encompass all workers, for the workers who have been incorporated into this new arrangement, the role of employer will be taken over by the Orwellian sounding ‘Private Employment Bureaus’.
In plain English, this means that the employee will be sent wherever needed, there will be no permanent workplace, nor permanent salary payment as the whole system works on a demand-driven basis.
The relation in which the employer “buys” labor in exchange for money is regulated through a mediator, the Bureau. The structure is dominated by the desires of the employer, designating any “bothersome” work that might result from a direct relationship with the worker to the Bureaus.
This, in turn, renders the employer simply a buyer of labor, free of responsibilities towards the worker. While employers are endowed with flexibility and an easily replaceable work force, the worker is forced to take a deal where she is subject to precarity, uncertainty, and diminishing social rights.
And what of the workplace? For workers who sign up to Private Employment Bureaus, the workplace becomes everywhere and anywhere. Workers are deprived of any sort of routine to the extent that they need to change their workplace on the basis of where there is a demand for labor. Work hours are also regulated in accordance with “need.” That is to say, illegitimately long working hours are justified without any further repercussions for the employer.
What’s more, social security requirements such as health insurance, chances of retirement and pensions come to be utopian dreams for the workers. They are not only uncertain, that is unspecified by the law; they are also left to the purview of the employment bureaus as the institutions to decide the social security conditions on the basis of nature of job.
Although this law comes with certain limitations, these limitations do not apply to certain sectors. For example, under normal circumstances the time limitation for “rental labor” is eight months. It can be extended only three times, up to a limit of 18 months. However, in the case of seasonal agricultural work, daily housekeeping work or elderly and/or house care, this limitation does not apply.
These “exceptions” raise doubts regarding the nature of this work, and verify my earlier speculations as to who the first targets of this law will be. It seems that this regulation will not only create further precarity for labor-intensive works but it also renders the most vulnerable groups of society even more vulnerable by enforcing uncertain work duration and place, non-permanent payment, and the de facto impossibility of retirement.
These groups – women and migrants being at the bottom of the pyramid – require further attention as to what this law will mean for the labor processes that affect them.
Migrant exploitation: once illicit, soon to be legal
Coinciding as it does with the work permit granted to refugees, the labor-for-rent regulation seems to justify the exploitation of migrants in Turkey – where they already suffer from the lack of any other social security.
As Turkey does not recognize the refugee status of those who come from non-Council of Europe states, it had not granted work permits to Syrian migrants until recently. Partly as a result of the controversial Turkey-EU readmission agreement, work permit for migrants were recognized for the first time in January 2016.
The details of the law are yet to be specified. For the time being, we know that the work permit encompasses everyone who has been registered either under temporary protection (mostly designed for Syrians) or under subsidiary refugee status. Although this seemed to be a promising development, coupled with the latest labor regulations, it is hard to project a bright future for migrants’ work life in Turkey.
In fact, it seems almost certain that the (de)regulation of labor under further neoliberalization will hit migrants hardest, alongside other oppressed and disempowered groups. Labor camps for migrants in the agricultural areas seem to be an early yet (for now) illicit experiment in preparation for what is to come.
According to the latest report issued by Halkların Köprüsü Derneği, in agricultural regions where farmers usually employ seasonal workers, migrants have come to be the new labor force for various reasons. Chief among those is cheap labor.
Already status-less, migrants have emerged as a new cheap labor force for many sectors. Before the new codification of the work permit, these sectors were mostly informal and unlicensed – industries such as textiles and leather.
Now, not only will these sectors be legitimized under the new law, but their common practices of exploitation (long working hours, child labor, insecurity) will spread to formal work sectors as well.
A largely Syrian ‘labor camp’ in Izmir, Torbalı, can give us an idea what the situation may look like. Migrants laboring here work as seasonal agricultural workers, a role which historically fell to Turkey’s Kurdish population. Today, migrants are hired more often than Kurdish workers in these sectors as they represent the new bottom rung: the least secure and most precarious population in Turkish society today.
Migrants working in camps such as Torbalı live in tent cities without electricity, clean water, or proper hygiene. Curiously enough, this situation does not outrage anyone except for the workers themselves. It does not generate any form of solidarity against the exploitation of the labor of the vulnerable. It is not hard to see the legalized exploitation of migrant labor force we have seen in Europe coming to Turkey. In these countries, migrant labor is abused under the guise of the host country’s good will, while border regimes become ever stricter.
Today, in Turkey, we need to reject and protest situations where migrant workers are isolated from the rest of the society, further marginalized and immobilized under the new legal – yet unethical – regulations of AKP-style neoliberalism.