Turkish workers feel left out from economic boom

ANKARA – In a garage in Ulus – an old, shabby district of Ankara where everything from wooden spoons to blue jeans and cheese sells at knockdown prices – mechanic Murat Mert is unimpressed by Turkey’s economic boom. With a wife and a son to look after he works 12 hours a day, six days a week, for 600 lira ($448) a month. More than half of this goes on rent and transport and his pay is below a «hunger line» declared by labor union Turk-Is for a family of four. «How can you be pleased with this? How can you feel economic improvement with this money?» he said. The pro-business Justice and Development Party (AKP) – expected to win most votes in parliamentary elections on July 22 – has in five years in power overseen strong economic growth averaging 7.3 percent a year, but people in Ulus say it has failed to distribute the wealth. While media and the middle classes have in the runup to the poll focused on the role of religion in politics and the secular order, many people say the economy is a bigger issue. The AKP, a center-right, Islamist-rooted party, won a landslide victory in 2002 after disgruntled voters rejected the incumbent coalition over an economic crisis. It claims Turks are much better off today than they were then, citing a slide in inflation to around 10 percent from 45 percent and the launch of European Union membership talks. Per capita income rose to $5,477 last year from $2,598 in 2002. The gross national product has more than doubled to $400 billion. Foreign investors have been buying up banks, firms and property in the hope Turkey’s economy will come into line with others in Western Europe. But the statistics may not help in Ulus’s narrow, quiet streets on a hill overlooking the city, where sellers sip tea and chat outside their mostly empty stores. This time around, commentators say the AKP may need a coalition partner to form a government, and the problem of sustained poverty could be a platform to win support from people like Mert. «Things get worse every year. We had more customers five years ago. People come in, ask prices and then leave,» said Yasemin Ozcelik, a saleswoman in a store selling wedding dresses. For Ozcelik, who wears the Islamic headscarf, economics will play a decisive role: «This government ignored the poor, peasants and small businesses. People can’t buy anything and of course they will show their reaction in the elections,» she said, adding she would not vote for the AKP. Longer hours than Mexicans Unemployment remains stubbornly high above 10 percent: It is a persistent problem as Turkey’s working-age population grew by 23 million between 1980 and 2004, while only 6 million jobs were created in the same period. Unions say people’s purchasing power has not improved as the government claims: «Workers’ purchasing power has fallen and there is serious poverty and unemployment behind the rosy picture,» said Suleyman Celebi, head of the DISK labor confederation, which represents 450,000 workers. He said many workers still lacked social security protection and had to work 13-14 hours a day. International Labor Organization data show Turkey has among the highest number of hours worked in manufacturing per worker, far more than in the European Union – and even more than Mexico. A Turk works 52.1 hours a week on average versus 38.5 hours in the old EU-15 countries and 44.7 hours in Mexico. Official data show 20.5 percent of Turks live below the poverty line, rising to 33 percent in rural areas. Growth alone is not enough to combat poverty and a new government should increase subsidies to help the poor, said Yesim Oruc Kaya from the United Nations Development Program. The problem extends well beyond suburbs like Ulus and rural areas: Another example is Diyarbakir, the biggest city in Turkey’s impoverished mainly Kurdish southeast region. «A group of people in Turkish society are not benefiting from growth at all. About 70 percent of people in the suburbs of Diyarbakir are below the poverty line. Even if growth were 100 percent, it would not benefit these people,» Kaya said. Turkey needs a human-oriented, sustainable growth policy to approach EU income levels for its fast-growing young population, Kaya said. The problem could get worse as more migrants move from the countryside to the cities to seek work. «Turkey does not have people living in tin shacks like in Brazil’s Rio. Poverty is not that visible in the cities because it is hidden in the villages,» she said.