Ambulance (Credit: Seda Karatabanoğlu)

Immigrant doctors in Turkey complain that they are working under significantly worse conditions than their Turkish colleagues amid the extra strains of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Low pay and a lack of health insurance are common grievances, while funds that would normally be used to support trainees from outside Turkey have been diverted to Turkish doctors’ salaries. 

T, who spoke to Inside Turkey on condition of anonymity, is one of around 4,000 immigrant doctors currently working in the country, according to an estimate by the Turkish Medical Association (TTB). T came to Turkey from Palestine in 2009 to finish his medical studies and now works at a public hospital in western Turkey. 

“We thrive, despite the tough working conditions,” he said, noting that the situation was particularly difficult for medical residents – trainee doctors in hospitals – who are paid about half what their Turkish colleagues receive. The salary for a resident who is a Turkish citizen is between 3,300 to 3,500 liras a month, in addition to overtime and extra payments from capital funds held by the hospital that employs them. Overtime for residents from immigrant backgrounds is capped at 130 hours a month, and their total salary rarely amounts to more than 3,000 liras. 

In April and May, residents from immigrant backgrounds only received 1,800 Turkish lira for each month, less than minimum wage, after the health ministry reallocated funds. 

Haydarpaşa Hospital (Credit: Seda Karatabanoğlu)

“I’ve taken the physician’s oath, but I want to have decent finances and be able to survive,” said T, who has permanent damage to his lungs after contracting Covid-19 in May, most likely from one of his patients. 

Even people who did all their medical training in Turkey are regarded by the system as immigrant doctors. Ahmet Salhat, who is also Palestinian, graduated from Istanbul Marmara University in medicine in 2017 and now works at Bağcılar Research and Training Hospital as a surgeon. 

“There’s no difference between the likes of me and a doctor who is a Turkish citizen,” he said. “It’s the same workload but we’re seriously disadvantaged when it comes to payment.”

Several of the residents at Salhat’s hospital from immigrant backgrounds sued their employer for access to capital funds and are now paid at a higher rate. 

“Myself and two others requested additional payment. We said that the others set a precedent for us, but didn’t receive a response,” Salhat said, adding that the TTB had spoken to the hospital on their behalf, so far without results. The hospital did not respond to a request for comment. 

While many immigrant doctors have been coping with lower pay during the pandemic, their workload has risen, as it has done for their colleagues. 

Nigar Kangarli, who is from Azerbaijan and trained as a doctor in Baku, described how at her workplace, the Haydarpaşa hospital in Istanbul, doctors struggled to respond to demand during the early days of the pandemic. 

“There wasn’t enough equipment to run scanning tests,” Kangarli said. “We would need to make an official request to be able to swab patients, and the response would take two days. This procedure could have been faster, because the infection spreads really fast.” 

The branch of the TTB that represents medical residents is asking that hospitals grant overtime pay to all employees, regardless of their job status.

Young doctors (Credit: Seda Karatabanoğlu)

Kangarli, like other immigrant doctors, is not provided with state-funded health insurance, and said that she wouldn’t be able to afford private insurance on her current salary. 

“We’re doctors, but we’re afraid of getting sick,” she said. “We were given free tests for Covid-19, but our immigrant colleagues who contracted the coronavirus were asked to pay for their treatment.”

Since her pay was cut during the pandemic, Kangarli has been relying on her spouse’s income to make ends meet. 

“I was basically getting by on overtime pay, which I didn’t receive for two months,” she said. “Since then, I’ve gone into debt and I’ve had to put everything I normally do on hold. I want to establish my financial independence as a doctor.”