Deaths and injuries that have occurred during the construction of Istanbul’s gigantic new airport raise serious questions about whether the project has been carried out in accordance with Turkey’s legally-binding health and safety standards, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a dispatch from its Turkey country director posted on September 21.
At least 38 workers have died in preventable work-related accidents and many more have been badly injured, the head of the construction workers’ union Dev Yapi-Is was cited by the director, Emma Sinclair-Webb, as saying.
On September 14, thousands of airport construction workers protested against poor working and living conditions on the site, with a long list of demands, including an end to alleged arbitrary dismissals and late pay, and action to address workplace safety, and a bedbug infestation in workers’ sleeping quarters, HRW.
“Employers called in police and gendarmerie to respond to the protest, who used batons and teargas to disperse workers and later detained more than 500 of them for four days, restricting access to lawyers and parliamentarians and providing no information to families,” Sinclair-Webb said in her dispatch. Turkish media reports said riot police water cannon units also turned up to help quell the protest.
While most of the workers were reportedly ultimately released without charge, on September 19 an Istanbul court ordered 24 of the men, including union representatives, to be held in pre-trial detention and 19 to be released on bail.
All 43—the vast majority Kurdish—may face trial for downing tools and staging a protest, said Sinclair-Webb, adding that charges against the men included damaging public property, resisting police, possessing weapons, violating the law on public assemblies, and disrupting the freedom to work.
“On recent Turkish Airlines flights, after passengers watch the usual safety video they are also shown a short film lauding the virtues of Istanbul’s gigantic new third airport, expected to open in October,” the HRW country director wrote in her dispatch.
“But, according to accounts by construction workers struggling to finish the airport on time, conditions at the site couldn’t be further from the harmonious and sparkling world the video portrays.”
Sinclair-Webb said the treatment of the airport construction workers showed clearly that when it comes to protecting projects close to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government, “authorities have no compunction in cracking down brutally and trampling over the rights to protest, organize, and participate in trade union action”.
“Any charges against the workers should be dropped, those in detention unconditionally released, and authorities should focus on improving working conditions rather than using the police and courts to stifle workers’ demands. No one should be prosecuted or lose their job for non-violent protests about questionable work conditions.”
Airport officials have told Turkish media outlets and foreign news agencies that the protests were the result of the manipulation of just a few provocateurs, that they had started addressing any genuine difficulties faced by the workers and that the airport would be launched on time.
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