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Union observers at a trial of trade unionists in Turkey
Photo via KESK international (

Trade union freedom on trial in Turkey

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For at least a decade, the Erdoğan regime in Turkey has been clamping down on democratic freedoms and workers’ rights. Now the repression is escalating, and Turkey is once again listed as one of the ITUC’s ten worst countries to be a worker.

The state of emergency declared by the Government of Turkey in 2016, in response to an attempted coup, has been used by the state as cover for persistent and ongoing clampdowns on political opposition, trade unions and the Kurdish population.

Lawfare against trade unions 

Turkey is in the grip of an ongoing economic crisis, including a hyperinflationary spiral pre-dating the recent global trend towards inflation. This has driven down living standards and decimated the value of workers’ wages. 

At such a time, workers especially need strong, independent trade unions to protect themselves from economic misery. But in Turkey, the crisis has been aggravated by severe restrictions on trade union activity. The ITUC Global Rights Index reports repeated incidents of police violence against striking workers, sacking of trade unionists and widespread union busting. 

Turkey’s public sector workers have been heavily targeted. The government used the 2016 state of emergency to conduct a massive purge of well over 130,000 public servants at all levels, from academia to the judiciary. 

Public sector workers have been dismissed and placed on criminal charges as a result of trade union activity or perceived political disloyalty. Many of these charges are extremely serious, with about half of them accused of terrorism. 

For many of these workers, the legal process is still far from over and the impact on one of the TUC’s sister centres, public sector federation KESK, has been severe.  

KESK members and leaders have been subjected to ongoing hearings on the most spurious of charges – a form of lawfare designed cripple their ability to carry out their legitimate trade union functions. 

Although KESK’s seven-member executive was finally acquitted of unfounded charges in 2020, many of its members are still tied up in unfair legal processes

On 4 July 2022 eight leaders of the KESK healthcare affiliate SES, including their President Gönül Erden, stood trial. They’re charged, absurdly, of terrorism offenses, for no other activities than their normal union activities.  

Organising public gatherings, handing out trade union materials, organising meetings between colleagues – all normal trade unions activities protected by the right to freedom of association – are used as evidence against individuals on terrorism charges. Further, women leaders of both KESK and SES have been singled out for disproportionate harassment and persecution.  

UNISON, SES’s sister public-sector union in the UK, has been sending observers to the hearings, with General Secretary Christina McAnea going personally in July. This has been a highly politicised trial and UNISON’s observers have concluded that judges and prosecutors are working closely together in a coordinated and politically motivated fashion. 

The overall case is based on the testimony of an anonymous witness who has given evidence against at least 350 individuals and much of the evidence is spurious at best. Gönül Erden’s attendance as a guest at UNISON conference 2018 was even used as evidence for the terrorism charges she faces. 

In truth, terrorism has become a catchall term for the Government of Turkey to repress all democratic opposition, including trade unions. KESK’s promotion of labour rights, democracy, and peace are the real reasons they are being persecuted.  

The slide into dictatorship  

A recent TUC study on the Rise of the Far Right identified Turkey as part of an interconnected tide of emerging far-right regimes. 

Under Erdoğan’s rule there has been widespread political persecution of democratic forces, increased military repression of the Kurdish minority, and the emergence of a hard-line Islamic conservatism directed against social and cultural freedoms, especially those already limited rights enjoyed by women and LGBT people. Last year, Turkey withdrew from the Istanbul Convention on preventing violence against women and girls. 

Although there are important differences, the overall shift towards the hard right follows a familiar pattern internationally. Whether it's in Bolsonaro’s Brazil, Modi’s India or, increasingly, here in the UK, discriminatory social policies, language and violence against minorities are accompanied by a full-frontal attack on the organised labour movement.  

Extending from our role in the workplace, trade unions are an institution of democracy and a crucial line of defence for social rights across society. That’s why trade union solidarity is so important. We recognise that what happens to workers in one part of the world can happen to workers anywhere in the world.  

Trade union solidarity shines the light of international scrutiny on abuses heaped upon workers. It places pressure on the international image of states that, like Turkey, arrest and imprison trade unionists. 

Vocal solidarity can help give progressive forces the sense of security they need to force open democratic space and create real, meaningful change, as we have recently seen in Colombia

UK trade unions will continue engaging in solidarity work with our sisters and brothers in Turkey. When Turkey puts trade unionists on trial, we must show their government that the world is watching.

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