Inside a dark and narrow second-hand shop in Istanbul, a man sits in front of a barely-burning heater, wrapped in a dark coat with a homemade scarf dangling around his neck. Old refrigerators, sofas, and coffee tables – all unlikely to be sold any time soon – are piled up in the cold room.
The man, who asked not to be named, said that his life had been devastated since the currency crisis of August 2018. “I had a business – a shop – and I had to close it,” he said, bowing his head a little. “Now I hang around here with friends; I am unemployed. I don’t have anything else to say.”
The man in the shop is one of 4.3 million unemployed people in Turkey. The country’s unemployment rate was 13.3 per cent as of last November, though according to the treasury and finance minister Berat Albayrak, the worst is over. “What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger,” he said in an interview with Nikkei.
With positive quarterly growth rates in the second half of 2019, and the lowest level of inflation in two years, the Turkish economy shows some signs of recovery. But people on the street do not believe that the worst is over, since they continue to experience the effects of the economic crisis in their daily lives.
“It’s like we’re only working for shelter and three meals a day,” said Asena Doğan, a 29 year-old lawyer. She thinks that many people have given up luxuries in the last two years. “You eliminate the not-that-important stuff,” she said. “You postpone your holiday plans, or you stop going to a salon for a manicure every week.”
According to Barış Soydan, an economics commentator, unemployment is the main reason for the gap between official claims and everyday life. Research by the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey (DİSK-AR) suggests that the real unemployment rate is 20 per cent.
“Every one in five adults is unemployed right now’’, he said. “But the minister’s statements are about corporate revenues, so he has a right to say that Turkey is growing again.”
Soydan points to Koç Group, the largest Turkish conglomerate, which has a total income equal to eight per cent of Turkey’s GDP.
“[For them], everything’s coming up roses. But the millions of unemployed people don’t care about that. And they don’t care about Borsa Istanbul [Turkey’s stock exchange] breaking records.”
“A person would be crazy to agree with Mr Albayrak,” said Selin, a 29 year-old unemployed Turkish citizen from Istanbul who only gave her first name, “when they can see the prices of basic goods like eggs, cheese, or toilet paper.” Like Doğan, Selin thinks that the crisis has changed people’s spending habits.
In January this year, Twitter user @yatamamdaniye asked his followers what they’d given up in their lives. More than 500 people replied to his tweet, and most of the answers were depressing. People said they were afraid to visit the doctor because of the possible cost of medicines. Not being able to buy new shoes or a coat was a common complaint.
“I have anxiety attacks when I think that something might happen to my phone,” wrote one Twitter user. Many said they wouldn’t be able to afford a new computer in case of an accident.
Umut Darıcı, a new father who works in the media, said that his family income had actually gone up during the crisis because his wife is paid in US dollars. But they still find life difficult.
“Our spending has also gone up a crazy amount,” he said. “Two years ago when I went shopping for groceries, I could fill five or six bags on 150 Turkish lira. Now I pay the same amount for one, one and a half bags. You should see the prices of baby products. Can you imagine the amount of money we spend on those?”
Turkey’s annual inflation rate was 12.37 per cent in February, slightly higher than expected. But in 2018 it surged to more than 25 per cent, a 15-year high, as a currency crisis sent the cost of imports soaring.
Mr Murat, a tea seller at the Friday market in Üsküdar, one of the most crowded neighborhoods of Istanbul, said that a kilo of tea cost 10 lira before the crisis. Now it costs 35.
“A pack of sugar was 1.25 lira; now I pay 6 lira for it,” he said, as he distributes tea around the market booths before sunset.
Markets are traditionally places where Turkish people buy fruits and vegetables in bulk. But at the Üsküdar market, most shoppers are carrying small grocery bags.
Mr Murat calls over to a porter, sitting by a pile of empty crates.
“Are you going to hang up your boots, Süleyman?” he said.
“I will as soon as my son graduates,” Süleyman replied. “People don’t need my help carrying heavy things anymore.”
Continuing his tea round, Mr Murat points to one of the traders. “Look at him! He used to bring ten crates of green peppers, now he only brings three.”
The young man behind the counter corrects him. “Just two boxes,” he said. “And they are still here. People are buying less.”
For Soydan, the economics commentator, a key problem is that people’s salaries have not increased in step with prices.
“Purchasing power has decreased,” he said. One effect of this has been a turn towards cheaper food shops: in 2018 income at the discount supermarkets A101, BİM, and Şok increased by 33 per cent, according to Nielsen’s Shopper Trends report.
Soydan pointed out that LC Waikiki, an “affordable fashion” company founded in Romania and now owned mostly by Turkish business groups, has also seen revenue grow.
In turn, second-hand shops have benefited from the crisis. In front of a small furniture shop in Üsküdar, the owner shows products to a young couple planning their wedding.
“We are going to live with my parents-in-law,” the woman said. “My husband earns minimum wage, he works in a factory and I am a housewife. We don’t have enough money for a new home, but I insisted on at least buying new furniture. This is what we can afford.”
A family of four needs to make 2,824 lira a month to avoid starvation, and 9,943 lira to live above the poverty line, according to a new study by the Confederation of Turkish Trade Unions (Türk-İş). The minimum monthly salary is 2,374 lira.
An overlooked aspect of the crisis is its effect on social life. People say they have given up going to the cinema, reduced the number of holidays they take and books they buy, and stopped meeting friends for a drink. An Istanbul-based artist, nicknamed Huo RF, said that his first money-saving measures were to cut out overseas holidays and switch cinema dates to Netflix nights.
“I couldn’t risk the high cost,” he said. “Now my salary means nothing in terms of euros or dollars.”
Last year, the lira fell 11.1 per cent against the dollar, due in part to Turkey’s military incursion into Syria and the threat of US sanctions. Among other emerging market currencies, the lira’s poor performance was second only to the Argentine peso.
According to Soydan, this has had a different effect to other aspects of the crisis.
“Unemployment and inflation affected poor communities the most,” he said, “but the volatility of the lira has put pressure on Turkey’s middle class.”
According to the polling organisation KONDA, only 16 per cent of people in Turkey were able to save money during the last month of 2019. For 29 per cent of households, income was less than spending.
In front of the second-hand shops, 81 year-old Göknur Baba sits on a street corner. He has worked here for 75 years as a furniture dealer.
“We have hard times,” he said. “Things are good for some, but most of the traders are in bad shape financially.”
At least half a dozen people look into rubbish bins on the opposite side of the street, collecting cardboard to make fires, plastic bottles to sell or food to eat. An elderly man who displays a few items for sale on the ground – a picture of the Ka’aba, a dusty vase and an empty air freshener – takes a bunch of dill from the bins, put it inside a piece of stale bread from his bag, and eats.
Baba looks away. “He isn’t the only one,” he said. “People are famished. I don’t feel hopeful. I don’t feel like the worst is over – it is getting worse.”