Following the coup attempt of 2016, the Turkish government sacked thousands of public employees it accused of links to the plot. The opposition accused the government of acting unconstitutionally, and of trying to silence political opponents.
Four years on, some people have been reinstated and are trying to rebuild their lives, despite what one former trade union activist described as “an atmosphere of fear”.
Ayşe (not her real name), is one of several reinstated employees who spoke to Inside Turkey under condition of anonymity. In 2016 she was sacked from her job as a school counsellor in the south-eastern province of Diyarbakir – because, Ayşe believes, she was a member of a trade union.
When, after four years, she was allowed to return to work, she could summon up little enthusiasm for her job.
“I ignored the school environment for a long time,” the 31-year-old said. “I tried not to get close to anybody at work, and kept myself to myself.”
Ayşe’s colleagues had been supportive after her dismissal, but the situation put a distance between them nonetheless.
“My colleagues gave me about 500 Turkish Liras every month while I was laid off. Even though it wasn’t my whole salary, it was a good amount,” she said. “But that ended up making me feel embarrassed around my colleagues. While I was there, the only luxury I spent money on was a 250 lira haircut and yet everybody talked about it; they disapproved.”
Eventually, Ayşe asked to be transferred to a school in Istanbul, on the other side of Turkey.
Even short suspensions can have a detrimental effect. Muhammed, 40, was laid off for ten days from his job as a teacher in the eastern province of Tunceli, after he took part in a press conference for Turkey’s education workers’ union, Eğitim-Sen.
“We made a fuss because there was nothing to be ashamed of,” Muhammed said. “When I was reinstated, I tried to show solidarity for others who had been sacked because we were all targeted for the same things.”
He said that his return to work was an anxious one.
“Even I felt unmotivated after staying away from work for ten days,” he said. “I didn’t feel as idealistic as before and I was on edge. That was true for everyone, including those who were not removed from their post. You just can’t work with as much enthusiasm. I think that was the point all along. You work, knowing that you could lose your job if a pupil complains. People are afraid to unionise, those who are members stay away from activities. They [the government] wanted to create an environment of fear, and they succeeded.”
Mevlüt, 30, who works in a hospital in south-eastern Şırnak, was removed from his post after accusations that he was affiliated with the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Although he was eventually cleared, his absence from work created many hardships for him and his family.
“My young daughter got sick when I was off work. We ran to the hospital but at the doors of the place, I froze. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t go into the hospital building,” Mevlüt said.
Zozan, a 42-year-old history teacher in Istanbul, was removed from her post because she transferred a phone line registered in her name to a close relative. She was suspended for three months in 2016, then dismissed – and was only reinstated in 2019, almost two and a half years later. She lost interest in her job, and sees it just as a way to make a living.
“I received partial financial compensation and filed a lawsuit for emotional damages to be able to get the rest,” said Zozan. “The legal process is ongoing. I started working in a new high school and I haven’t had any issues because people don’t know about my sacking.”
Many other people who lost their jobs have not been reinstated. Veysi Altıntaş, 35, is one of more than 1,000 academics dismissed for signing a 2016 petition calling for a peaceful resolution to the conflict between the Turkish government and the PKK. He currently works in urban planning and lives in Istanbul.
Altıntaş said that the layoffs were particularly detrimental to academics in the early stages of their careers.
“Staff lecturers and professors weren’t affected as much,” he said. “There was an inverse correlation between status and psychological damage. We weren’t only unemployed, we were practically removed from citizenship: even our social security insurance files hold a record of our sacking.”
Altıntaş told Inside Turkey that many of his friends who signed the petition – known as the Academics for Peace – had left academia entirely.
“The damage is financial, social and psychological,” he concluded.
The emergency decrees, known as KHKs, have been criticised by human rights advocates as well as leading politicians. A legal challenge to one particular KHK launched by the Republican People’s Party (CHP) was dismissed by Turkey’s constitutional court, which also placed a ten-year ban on other similar requests. The Human Rights Association, a leading NGO, published a report that criticised the courts as unable to “effectively defend human rights”.
In October 2019, Bülent Arınç, a senior adviser to the Turkish president, described the decrees as “disasters” in an interview with the journalist Kemal Öztürk.
“There are so many people around me who have been subject to it,” he said. “I feel sorry for them, I feel mercy. In fact, I apologize to them.”
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan condemned the comments, and Arınç later said he had been misunderstood.