Turkey’s migrant workers tell of their woes

OMERLERKOY, Turkey (Reuters) – In late August, Serhan Korkmaz and his family rode 500 kilometers (310 miles) from their adopted home of Mersin to the central Anatolian plain on the back of a truck, carrying the tarpaulins that would shelter them during the onion harvest. Settlements of plastic tents supported by wooden poles sprout up across the Turkish countryside during the harvest months, when an estimated 6 million workers travel long distances to work on commercial farms. Many of Turkey’s cheap seasonal workers – like Korkmaz – started working as hired hands after they were displaced from southeastern villages during violence between Kurdish guerrillas and the army. The outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) took up arms to fight for an independent homeland in 1984, turning many villages into battlegrounds. Human Rights Watch estimates 1 million people were displaced by 1999, while the government puts the figure at 378,000. Today, the makeshift lives of migrant workers, marked by want and precarious living conditions, highlight the government’s failure to deal with its displaced populations. Under Turkish law, labor intermediaries or contractors are responsible for negotiating salaries and conditions between workers and farmers. «But there are intermediaries who are unlicensed,» said Osman Zaim, project director of the International Labor Organization in the capital, Ankara. This leaves workers vulnerable to exploitation. Turkey’s displaced populations are a cause for concern for the European Union, which Turkey seeks to join. Brussels is expected to criticize Ankara’s reform drive when it issues its latest progress report on November 8. Plastic tents shudder at the top of a small sun-baked and windswept plateau several kilometers from where Korkmaz and other migrants work in Omerlerkoy. A single empty water tanker stands at the edge of the settlement. Only 10 days into their contract, a chronic lack of water has hospitalized two workers. The farmers with whom they have negotiated contracts are responsible for bringing water and deciding on where the migrant laborers can pitch their camps. «They don’t let us come close to the village. There’s a well there, but they don’t let us use it. We can’t bathe, we can’t wash, we don’t have enough to drink,» said Korkmaz. Farmers say laborers must accept that the work is hard, especially when agricultural reforms are cutting into profits. And they say water supplies run short because they must also provide for the migrant laborers’ families. «These people come from nature, they’re used to having many kids. They are uneducated, and have no other skills. If there’s no work, of course they’re going have problems, there’s only so much we can provide,» said Cetin Akyar, a farmer who employs migrant workers to harvest onions. Empty villages The European Union has said economic underdevelopment in the east and southeast, the absence of basic infrastructure, the lack of capital, limited employment opportunities and the security situation have held up the return of displaced people. In the 1990s, the army used a scorched-earth policy to try to flush out PKK guerrillas, burning farms and villages suspected of having links to the separatists, considered a terrorist group by the United States and the EU. The reform-minded ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has initiated compensation programs for land lost and property damaged, but the schemes have been criticized for being ineffective and unfair. Government officials did not respond to requests for information, but Abdurrahman Kurt, chairman of the AKP in the southeast’s main province Diyarbakir, said efforts were under way to fix shortcomings. «We’re building dams and water pipes, for some $2 billion to $3 billion, to bring to the agricultural areas. That will solve much of the region’s problems,» he said. Compensation packages for villagers were as high as 30,000 euros ($38,030) initially but payouts have since fallen to an average of 5,000 lira (2,600 euros) in recent years, said Jonathan Sugden, a Turkey expert for human rights groups. For those who drift across Turkey during the harvest season, these figures offer little hope of starting life anew. «I’ve heard people are getting compensation, but it’s not enough,» said Korkmaz as he dug onions from a field in Omerlerkoy. «We would have to get back, buy livestock, and rebuild. All of our houses are in rubble,» he said.

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