Yusuf Savur, 28, a construction worker since the age 15, lives in a caravan on an Istanbul building site that continued to operate throughout the Covid-19 lockdown. Although the World Health Organisation recommends hand-washing as an essential precaution against the virus, Savur said that he did not even have access to soap. 

“When the outbreak started, the company we work for dropped off some soap at the site,” he said. “That ran out in a week and they never replaced it.” 

Savur said that he and his colleagues now have to wash their hands with just water, and that they are only given time to do so during coffee breaks and at mealtimes.

Turkey’s workplace safety law requires employers to distribute necessary protective equipment to their staff, but Savur’s site received just one delivery of surgical masks. 

A construction worker Yusuf Savur is trying to stay safe by keeping distant from everyone but his roommate, and buying hand sanitizer from a pharmacy whenever he can. (Credit: Savur’s personal archive)

“They gave us washable masks, but we can barely wash our hands, so how are we supposed to wash them?” he said. “We’re constantly working in dirt and not even the manager wears a mask. We just wear them whenever we leave the site.”

Savur said that his colleagues have raised these issues with their bosses, but got nowhere. 

“Our insisting did nothing. I’ve had coworkers who didn’t show up because the conditions weren’t sanitary. They got pay cuts,” Savur said. In the meantime, he has tried to take his own precautions by keeping distant from everyone but his roommate, and buying hand sanitizer from a pharmacy whenever he can. 

Construction sites in Turkey remained open throughout the pandemic, despite nearly two months of forced closures of other businesses. But workers on sites in Istanbul say that they have been denied proper protective equipment or washing facilities throughout, highlighting the dangers of a sector long known for its occupational hazards.

Derviş Karadana, 26, is a metalsmith who works at another large building site in Istanbul. Many of Turkey’s construction workers are on low incomes and struggle to find housing: like Savur, Karadana lives where he works, because he can’t afford Istanbul’s high rents. 

Karadana said that precautions taken at his site in the early days of the pandemic soon lapsed. 

“They left hand sanitizers at our caravans and checked our blood pressure every now and then. We could only eat in groups of four and had to take turns. They don’t do any of that anymore,” he said. “When we tell the bosses, they say there’s nothing they can do. On the construction site it’s as if the pandemic is over, even though people are still being infected every day.”

Karadana’s site has introduced a policy of allowing a maximum of three people to every caravan, but the metalsmith is worried that the additional precautions he takes won’t be enough to keep him safe on a crowded site. 

Derviş Karadana lives at the building site where he works because he can’t afford Istanbul’s high rents. (Credit: Karadana’s personal archive)

“I share bathrooms with at least 15 people each day. The bathrooms should be cleaned daily, but the company doesn’t want to pay for the extra cost. I will catch the virus if someone in the site has it, no matter how careful I try to be.”

Both Savur and Karadana say they had to keep working because they had no other options. 

“If I become unemployed, I will be bankrupt. I was unemployed for five months and I’ve had this job for three months. I have to work,” Karadana said. 

Savur said that he had considered quitting, but had no alternative means of support. 

“I wouldn’t be able to receive any financial aid if I quit my job. The government doesn’t look out for workers. So I decided I’d rather die from this virus than from starvation.”

Turkey has taken some steps to protect workers’ incomes during the pandemic. On April 16, the government banned employers from laying off staff for three months and introduced a monthly stipend of 1,170 liras for any who were furloughed. However, the sum is significantly below average living costs, which for a single person without children is estimated by the Confederation of Turkish Trade Unions to be 2,884 liras a month. A family of four needs to make 2,374 liras a month to avoid going hungry, and 7,733 liras a month to keep above the poverty line.

An official in the Progressive Construction and Road Workers Union, Sedat Aydın, is calling for non-essential building work to be halted during the pandemic. (Credit: Aydın’s personal archive)

Sedat Aydın, an official in the Progressive Construction and Road Workers Union (Dev-Yapı-İş), is calling for non-essential building work to be halted during the pandemic. 

“We’ve been urging the government to close down non-essential businesses, but they wouldn’t listen,” he said. In a speech on March 30, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that Turkey must continue production and “keep the wheels turning”. 

The construction industry and its subsidiaries account for almost 30 per cent of the country’s gross national income and is a major source of employment. In recent years several “mega projects” – airports, bridges, hospitals and other large-scale sites considered important to Turkey’s economic development – have been launched in Istanbul and elsewhere. 

On April 3, three workers at the building site for Istanbul’s new port, Galataport, were diagnosed with COVID-19. The site stayed open. On April 7 Hasan Oğuz, a worker at the site, was taken to hospital after suffering a heart attack. Displaying Covid-19 symptoms, he was placed into intensive care and treated for the virus. He died of Covid-19 on April 13. 

In Aydın’s opinion, Oğuz’s employers and the lack of government regulation were partly responsible for his death. The company in charge of the building site did not respond to a request for comment from Inside Turkey, but a statement posted on their website shortly after the death said that they were committed to the safety of their employees and would halt building works on April 14. 

Workers in industries that have remained open are at greater risk of contracting coronavirus. Dev-Yapı-İş is part of the larger Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions (DISK), which represents around 185,000 workers in a range of occupations. On April 27, DISK published a report that found the infection rate among its members was 3.2 times the national rate. It recorded at least 535 deaths linked to coronavirus among its members, with metalworkers and cleaners among the worst affected, and called for non-essential industries to be paused.

Aydın is also a construction worker, and quit his job during the pandemic because there were no safety precautions at his building site. For the moment, he is being supported financially by his wife, who works in a supermarket. 

“I don’t have a chronic illness and I’m still afraid of coronavirus,” he said. “The bathrooms at my old job were so far from our site that it took us half an hour to walk to them and back. These conditions are just an invitation for the virus.” 

On May 7, Turkey’s Social Security Institution (SGK) announced that workers infected with Covid-19 would be covered by health insurance, where they have it, rather than protections for accidents at work or occupational disease. This regulation prevents workers from suing their employers for damages, and families from claiming compensation in the event of a death. 

Şeref Özcan, chief inspector of workplaces for the Ministry of Family, Labour and Social Services, told Inside Turkey that he disagreed with the decision. 

“It means that anyone who wants to sue their employer for compensation has to go to court. That takes between three and five years,” he said, pointing out that a similar situation existed until 2016 for people who had heart attacks at work. “That victimised a lot of people. They’re repeating the mistakes they made.”

Shopping malls, hairdressers and beauty salons have been allowed to reopen since May 11, while other workplaces that had closed or reduced staff numbers are now returning to regular work schedules. But Özcan warns of potential risks. 

“Covid-19 could cause real issues in workplaces where work is done in close proximity with others,” he said. “There are jobs where two or three people have to work together at the same time.”

The inspector warned that people who work indoors could be put at risk by ventilation systems, an issue that would become more of a problem during the summer months, when air conditioning is switched on. For outdoor workplaces like construction sites, he said that the distribution of hand sanitizer, masks and gloves would not be sufficient without more rigorous distancing measures and efforts to isolate suspected cases. 

“If personal protective equipment is all employers are doing, then they haven’t done enough for workplace safety,” he said. “Personal protective equipment is considered the last step.”

Aydın believes that greater state support is needed to keep people safe when they need to self-isolate or protect themselves from infection. 

“Workers must receive aid that’s at least as high as the minimum wage,” he said. “Otherwise, coronavirus will become a working-class disease.”