Arzu Çerkezoğlu

Chairwoman of Turkish labor unions confederation DISK

All businesses, except for the production of mandatory goods and services, must be halted, and employees should be supported, says trade union DİSK chair. (Photo: DISK)

The outbreak is, without a doubt, a medical issue. In its early stages, we can win the fight against it by taking preventive and protective measures, so it doesn’t spread. But both scientific data and previous examples in history show that COVID-19 is not only a medical issue. It shakes every aspect of life, be it economic, social, cultural or political. The people most affected by the COVID-19 outbreak health-wise are those over the age of 65. But there are also other victims: the poor, the unemployed and all the working classes. As the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey (DISK), ever since the detection of the first official case on March 11, 2020, we have shared all the steps to take with all workers -unionized or not – with the public and with the government.

We insistently reminded that the state had three main duties amid such an outbreak. These were to protect the health of the people, as well as the work and income of workers and households.

Six urgent demands

Within the framework of these tasks, we shared six basic requests with the public and explained them in detail to the labor minister on March 17. These basic demands were as follows:

  • Work, except for the production of mandatory goods and services must be halted and paid leave must be applied,
  • All employees’ incomes must be secured,
  • Conditions must be eased for benefiting from unemployment insurance,
  • Invoice and credit debts must be postponed,
  • The lowest pension must be increased to the minimum wage level.

Those who are running the country have avoided engaging in any dialogue on these demands which are all basic, vital, sensible, and all based on science and the law. Instead, they chose not to invite DISK to the Coronavirus Struggle Coordination Meeting held at the government’s Çankaya mansion on March 18. And we saw the reason for that lay in the new package of measures announced at the end of the meeting: the “Economic Stability Shield.” From the people who attended this meeting to the decisions made, this new package in no way corresponds to the gravity of the situation. In such a period in time where everyone is advised to stay home, mind-numbingly futile decisions like lowering the VAT on air travel or new housing loan arrangements were brought to light. In the meantime, no measures were taken to alleviate the heavy toll on the workers, those who have lost their jobs, or the people of low income.

It’s becoming clearer as the epidemic evolves that staying home, practicing absolute isolation as well as minimizing social contact as much as possible is vital. But those who run the country are still disregarding what’s sensible and science-driven, stating instead that “exports is the priority, the wheels should keep turning.” Right now, time is running out. Our call to halt all work except for jobs that provide basic, compulsory, urgent goods and services has fallen on deaf ears on the part of the government for the time being, even though it’s widely embraced by workers. Finally, we have once again called on those who rule the country to take these steps within the next 48 hours at the latest. We said that it was possible to take these decisions during this time and that it was a necessity in combating the epidemic.

We continue to raise the demand alongside other workers’ confederations, labor and professional organizations, political parties and democratic mass organizations.

‘Unemployment Insurance Fund should be utilized”

In addition to this, our calls remain for the prohibition of layoffs and for making necessary arrangements for all unemployed people to benefit from the unemployment allowance in this process where unemployment has increased considerably. There can be no explanation for the government’s resistance to use the 131 billion Turkish Liras (nearly $20 billion) in the Unemployment Insurance Fund, which actually belongs to workers in and out of employment. It’s possible to provide three-months’-worth of minimum wage payments to 15 million workers with the money in the Unemployment Insurance Fund.

In addition to these, there are enough resources to cover emergency welfare-state measures, to guarantee income for all citizens and to postpone their credit, invoice and tax debts.

Unnecessary and non-essential public investments must be halted and projects on which no public consensus was reached, such as the Kanal Istanbul, must be canceled. On the other hand, payments made to companies for bridge, road and airport construction must be stopped. More resources must be collected from the high-income and wealthy portions of the population to increase public revenues during the fight against this epidemic. In Turkey, 42 percent of the country’s total wealth is in the hands of the 1 percent of the population. This inequality cannot go on under COVID-19 conditions. That’s why a small minority with great wealth needs to make much greater sacrifices. In the fight against COVID-19, an arrangement that increases the tax levied on wealth must be implemented.

On the other, anxieties over the budget deficit and inflation cannot be valid during this epidemic. In order to prevent the shrinkage in the economy and the loss of income, and to meet the increasing central budget expenditures, Central Bank advance payments need to come into play if need be.

In short, DISK’s proposal is rooted in the principle of welfare-state and aims for the benefit of the public and of society as a whole in the fight against COVID-19, which is a social disaster. Now is the time for the welfare state. But the government’s decisions thus far have been out of touch with the gravity of the situation and based on formulaic pro-capital policies.

We will tirelessly continue to express that these preferences will bring about a major disaster for the country and that they should change immediately. We will continue to fight for this and note all of these down for the record.