Shooting the messenger

December 17, 2019

A MAJOR prestige project of the sort that has marked the second half of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s sixteen years in power saw the deaths of no less than 55 workers and injuries, some of them life changing, to scores more.

But this outrageous health and safety record has seen only minor official action taken against the bosses of the firms working on the airport. This has incensed Turkish trades unions who sought to represent the interest of the 35,000 workers employed on the vast site. But their protests have been ignored. And when workers downed tools and demonstrated following two more unnecessary deaths, the police moved in and 500 were detained. Many were later fired.

One of the workforce’s major complaints was that local managers were under pressure to finish the first phase of the project in time for last year’s 95th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the Turkish republic by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. This meant that wherever possible corners were cut to speed up construction. Managers received bonuses for getting work done on schedule and drove the workforce hard.

Though the dangers of working on the airport were widely rumored back in Istanbul, 35 kilometers away, there was little official news of the rising death toll. Then the left-wing Cumhuriyet broke the story calling the airport site a “workers’ graveyard”. It also pointed out there had been no major prosecutions nor censure of the construction companies. As a result of the Cumhuriyet stories, the courts did act ... by fining the newspaper for its coverage and ordering it to pay the contractors $2,600 in damages.

Erdogan laid the foundation stone for Istanbul’s new $30 billion third airport in June 2014. Hardly four years later, the first phase of what has already become an award-winner, was completed. In its first year it has reportedly handled ten million passengers. When this mega-project is finished, it will be the world’s largest commercial hub, able to handle 200 million passengers flying between 350 destinations.

The five local constructions companies that make up the IGA consortium that has built the airport, all have close links to Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). IGA has been awarded a 25 year contract to operate the entire facility.

Before it opened up in 1980 under Turgut Özal, the Turkish economy was dominated by import-substitution. The country made virtually everything, often buying up obsolete machine tools from abroad. Quality was always variable but there was no doubting the determination of the manufacturers such a Pasabahce Glass. The achievements since Turkey’s latent business drive was unfettered have been considerable. But they have, all too often, come at costs in terms of health and safety, workers’ rights and humanitarian considerations.

Turks pride themselves on their toughness, and no one seems tougher than the increasingly dictatorial Erdogan, now busy picking fights with other countries over arms procurement, NATO responsibilities, the covert aid to Daesh (the self-proclaimed IS) terrorists, the support for the Muslim Brotherhood and most recently laying a claim, alongside his Libya puppet regime, to large parts of the hydrocarbon wealth beneath the Eastern Mediterranean.

A little thing like 55 workers dying while they were building his dream airport is not going to bother Erdogan though clearly any newspaper that reports this carnage does.

December 17, 2019
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