15 May 2019 15:06

Unionisation rate and workers’ movement in Turkey, with facts and figures

What is the rate of unionisation in Turkey? How much can workers access collective bargaining? To what extent are women represented in unions?

Photograph: İbrahim Mase/DHA


İsmail Gökhan BAYRAM

Revolutionary Workers’ Unions Confederation Research Centre (DISK-AR), released the results of their important research into workers’ relationship with their unions.

The report, written at a time when struggle against the crisis is discussed and the question of whom will foot the bill of the crisis is posed, shows the response by workers to previous crisis and provides striking clues regarding the situation today.

We examined the data provided by the report, titled “Research on Unionisation”; we evaluated the meaning of the data with some of those concerned.


Turkey is one of the countries with the lowest rate of unionisation and collective bargaining within the OECD countries. According to OECD figures, the rate of unionisation in Turkey in 2017 was 8.7 percent. Collective bargaining rate in 2016 was 7 percent. These figures ensure that Turkey is among the countries at the bottom of the OECD list.

In the report it is stated that “the rate of unionisation is 11.4 percent when unregistered workers are included. The statement by the ministry of a rate of 13.9 percent is inaccurate.”

Going back to OECD figures; Iceland is in first place with a unionisation rate of 85.5 percent; followed by Denmark with a rate of 67.2 percent and Sweden with 66 percent. This figure in Turkey is 8.6 percent.

A vital component of the right to unionise, the right to collective bargaining has an important place in terms of workers’ rights and interests.

In the majority of OECD and EU countries, collective bargaining agreements also apply to non-unionised workers. Hence, the right to collective bargaining overtakes unionisation. For example, in France, where the rate of unionisation is 7.9 percent, the rate of coverage of collective bargaining agreements is 98.5 percent. In EU countries, the coverage of collective bargaining agreements is generally above 50 percent of the workforce.

The coverage of collective bargaining is 98 percent in Austria, 96 percent in Belgium, 90 percent in Greece and Sweden. The countries where collective bargaining covers the least of the worker population are Mexico with 12.5 percent, USA with 12 percent, 11.8 percent in Korea, 7.1 percent in Lithuania and 7 percent in Turkey.


If we examine the rate of unionisation of non-public-sector workers, calculated through those benefiting from collective bargaining between 1988 and 2012; the rate of collective bargaining that started at around 25 percent at the beginning of 1990s went down to 10-12 percent a the beginning of the 2000s and further dropped to 6-7 percent in 2010s.


So, what is the reason for a low rate of unionisation and collective bargaining in Turkey, what is the reason for the drop over the years?

Seyit Aslan, the General Secretary of Gıda-İş (Turkish Food Industry Workers’ Union), affiliated to DISK, gives an answer:

From the perspective of the working class struggle, in the 70s and 80s economic and social rights, union rights and freedoms were turned into gains for workers against capital. The level of organisation of unions and the rate of participation in collective bargaining was mainly determined by the public. The economical decisions of 24 January 1980 and the military coup of 12 September were the beginning of the withdrawal of these rights. The period of privatisation started under the Premiership of Turgut Özal (1983) is today pretty much completed at the end of the 17 year rule of the AKP.

As a result of privatisation, the number of workers that can benefit from union rights, freedoms and collective bargaining dropped rapidly. The change in legislation, in the interest of capital, put major barriers in unionisation of workers. Thresholds for sectors, workplaces and companies are just a few of these barriers. Other attacks on unionised organisation have been sub-contracting, build-operate-transfer schemes, purchasing of services and new ways of work. Sub-contracting, flexible working, insecure working and lately the rental workers’ bureaus contributed to the current situation.


In the 2000s, under the rulerships of AKP, the tendency to strike greatly regressed.

The average annual number of striking workers between 1984 and 2002 was 40 thousand and 823 whereas between 2002 and 2017 this number dropped to 5 thousand 693.

The number of days spent striking between 1984 and 2002 was 1 million and 208 thousand, whereas between 2003 and 2017 this dropped to 227 thousand days.

Another key indicator of the 2000s is the almost negligible number of public sector workers taking part in strikes. The biggest reason for this is the shrinking in the public sector, and the increasing tendency to privatise and sub-contracting in 2000.


The latest tool in the government’s managing of the economy, bans on strikes, have also contributed to the reduction in the tendency to strike.

Erdoğan and AKP governments banned a total of 16 strikes, 7 of which were during the State of Emergency. Many of these were enacted under the pretext of ‘national security.’ 193 thousand workers suffered from bans on strikes since 2003.


The rate of unionisation varies greatly from sector to sector. While tourism, building and office work has been sectors with low levels of unionisation; banking, financial, insurance, defence and security sectors show the highest levels of unionisation.

Lack of unionisation continues in the building sector, which saw the second highest rate of workplace murders in 2018. The rate of unionisation is 4.4 percent and corresponds to only 54 thousand and 921 workers.

Engin Sezgin of Genel-İş (Genera-Work) Union, addressing unionisation in different sectors, draws attention to the inverse ratio of problems experienced in different sectors and the rate of unionisation. Stating that sectors with most problems, loss of rights and workplace murders are the ones where rate of unionisation is low, Sezgin says “It will be easier to understand if we say that rights are abused more in sectors where unionisation does not exist. In sectors where problems and abuse of rights is a major problem; as well as many structural issues, capitalist class are trying actively to prevent unionisation. In the private sector, the decision of a worker to join a union is simultaneous with that worker admitting that (s)he can be unemployed immediately. Many unions also decide to stay away from sectors and workplaces they deem problematic.”

Pointing to the fact that the struggle, continued with a few unions, still brings victories at times Sezgin continued “ During times of rising class struggle and social struggle, we can see stronger movements in unionisation dynamics. We saw the latest example of this in the recent metal workers struggle. Metal workers have struggled for their right to unionise as well as enhancing their economic rights. This struggle also led to unionisation struggle in other sectors and to successes in some cases. From this perspective, the working class movement includes the most natural relationship in terms of influencing each other and sharing experiences.”


Analysing the role of unions and union staff in terms of the data, DISK/Gıda-İş General Secretary Seyit Aslan said “Majority of unions and their staff  have a bureaucratic outlook. Unionised bureaucracy is in arms with the rulership and capital.They made deals with the rulership and capital rather than raising the struggle, securing new rights for workers, acting together against attacks on workers. They praised privatisation; they turned a blind eye to aggressive legislation. They took a stance that defends the rulerships; they failed to meet the demands of the struggle. Workers stopped trusting unions. They couldn’t even stand together against workplace murders. In the unions that did not share these sentiments, the ideology to protect their patch, however small, became prominent. Solidarity and joint organisation was never achieved.”


Both the number of organised women workers and the representation of women in administrative roles in trade unions are quite low. One reason for this is the male-dominated structure in the unions; women's low level of employment in the public sector is another important reason. Gender roles and family responsibilities imposed on women are among the obstacles to organisation of women.

As of July 2018, women accounted for 27.6 percent of total workers, while female union members accounted for 19 percent of total union members. While 72.4 percent of the total workers are male, they constitute 81 percent of total union members.


We asked DİSK Research Department Expert, Deniz Beyazbulut, how the current situation was discussed in trade unions and how it could be changed. Mr Beyazbulut said that despite all pressures and barriers, unionisation rate among women is more than men, and this point is not included in the report. He explained that there are multidimensional obstacles to unionisation of women:

“First of all, I think that the labour market, market policies and current working conditions cannot be evaluated independently of unionisation of women. It is known that women work more irregularly, unregistered and through private employment agencies than men. Four out of every ten women work off the record. Informality simply means non-unionisation. The number of women who are ready to work but not working, who do not participate in employment due to “housework” reached 11 million. Therefore, one of the biggest obstacles to unionisation of women is being treated as the step-child of working life. If this situation is to somehow change then a discussion on the situation of women in their work life should be where it starts. Male sovereignty and dominance in trade unions and the objections of spouses and families in this regard prevent both the unionisation of women and the participation of organised women in trade union activities. Males (husbands) and male dominant trade unions both play a role here. It is necessary to stubbornly get women to the management of the unions. One of the obstacles to unionisation of women is the employers themselves. Unionisation, putting pressure on women workers to resign from their union membership in front of their husbands and families,  statements such as "Woman do not need a union”; keeping women away from the union; forcing them to stay for over-time for simply becoming unionised; extended working hours; verbal or sexual harassment are a few of these obstacles. The pressures carried out by employers also keep women from unionising.” Noting the importance of the struggle to overcome the obstacles to the unionisation of women, Beyazbulut said, “Women need to continue their struggle against the pressures against their unionisation by both their spouses and employers but also the political power. They will continue to do so too.”