Nur Babacan, 28, once made her living cleaning apartment buildings in Istanbul. Since the beginning of the pandemic, however, work has dried up and she is struggling to make ends meet.
“There are times when I have nothing to cook, and we have to make a meal out of soup and some noodles or bread,” said Babacan, who is separated from her husband and has four children to feed. “Sometimes we skip meals altogether. I try to get our basic needs on credit from the small grocery store.”
Like many cleaning workers in Turkey who are paid by the day, Babacan faces severe hardship. Before the pandemic, she supplemented her wages by selling beadwork she made at home in the evenings; together with her cleaning job, this was enough to cover her family’s basic needs. But since the arrival of coronavirus, homeowners have been reluctant to hire her, either because they don’t want another person entering their living space, or because they’re worried about their own finances.
“I couldn’t pay my rent or my bills because I lost my income,” Babacan said. “I can’t cover my expenses. My landlord is trying to evict me.”
Women who make a living as daily cleaners are among the groups in Turkey hit hardest by the pandemic. According to the Turkish Statistical Institute, more than 600,000 people – overwhelmingly women – do this kind of work, although İmece, a trade union for domestic workers, believes the true figure is over a million.
Some 50.4 per cent of these workers lost employment between January and September, according to social security data from the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey. Two thirds of cleaners are uninsured, however, and don’t show up in social security figures.
With only 20 to 50 liras a week coming in from her beadwork, Babacan has been forced to look for financial aid. She received 1,000 liras from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s We Are Enough for Each Other fund, launched during the pandemic, as well as support from the Istanbul municipality’s programme for people who have trouble paying bills.
“We apply for state aid but the support isn’t consistent,” Babacan said. “I receive aid from charities. I applied to the district governor’s office, but nothing there yet. It’s not possible to live on these small bits of support here and there.”
Babacan said that at times she has been unable to afford nappies for her two youngest children, both toddlers.
“I try to have them get by with just pants on,” she said. “I give them sugar water when I can’t get formula, or I’ll soften up some crackers with milk to feed them. They still breastfeed, so I try to give them extra milk to make up for the lost nutrition, sometimes even giving up my sleep for it.”
Sultan Demirkan, a 47 year-old Istanbul resident who lives with her two daughters, also lost cleaning work during the pandemic. For her, the work disappeared gradually.
“Everyone’s afraid, nobody lets you into their house,” she said. “[Some of the employers] where I’m a regular paid me upfront to help. Now I’m making up for it by cleaning there again. I’m scared to go into their homes, but I don’t have a choice.”
Demirkan said that her wages are now slowly recovering but that she lacks a stable income, which stops her planning ahead.
“If I make a lot, I spend a lot, if I make little money, I spend little money. We never get lump sums of cash. I make less than what I did before the pandemic at the moment,” she said.
Like Babacan, Demirkan also said that state support has not been enough.
“There were days when we couldn’t get our hands on a loaf of bread,” she continued. “We made some bread with the flour at home, and ate that for the whole day sometimes.”
Demirkan said that her daughters were falling behind on their education because she could not afford to pay for smartphones that would have allowed them to attend lessons online.
Mother-of-two Aslı Yenik, 33, worked five days a week as a cleaner before the pandemic hit. She said that her husband’s income has not been enough for them to live on alone after she lost employment.
One of Yenik’s children attends a music school on a 60 per cent scholarship.
“I couldn’t pay my child’s school tuition installments, bills are piled up,” she said. “Our internet was disconnected because we couldn’t pay, so the children can’t follow lessons remotely.”
Yenik has also received a payment of 1,000 liras from the state support fund, and a one-off food parcel from the local municipality, but she is still desperate to find work.
“Our jobs are directly inside people’s homes, we have no choice but to enter their living space. That scares everyone, nobody lets us in their house. I’m scared for myself and my family, but I’d still go to work if they asked me to, because we’re really struggling,” she said.
Meanwhile, Yenik’s family is forced to choose between essentials while shopping.
“Buying clothes for ourselves is a luxury at this point, we’re happy to just cover the children’s needs. I have to think twice about buying deodorant.”
İmece chair Ayten Kargın said that domestic workers often do not qualify for the state’s reduced-hours support payment, an emergency measure introduced this year, since many were not registered for social security or insurance.
“It’s poverty that terrifies people, not the pandemic,” Kargın said. “They’re desperate and don’t know what to do. Domestic workers are workers too, and they should be included in labour legislation. There’s no end to the list of aid requests we receive, our phones never stop ringing.”
A recent report by the Deep Poverty Network NGO revealed 67 per cent of workers who rely on daily wages were made unemployed during the pandemic.
“In the case of women who work as cleaners, they are going through a time when even their access to food has been cut off, and they’re battling hunger,” said Şevval Şener, a research coordinator at the Deep Poverty Network.
“Some of them are even thinking of committing suicide. People who barely made it by before the pandemic are now living without electricity and water, and even risk becoming homeless. Helplessness is the overwhelming feeling, they don’t know who to turn to.”
Şener said that it is particularly hard for women struggling to support their children.
“You absolutely need a computer or a tablet and Internet to keep up with remote education. Most of these workers can’t afford any of that. Some mothers don’t know how to read and write, which prevents them from supporting their child or providing the motivation they need. These women are questioning their motherhood and battling hunger at the same time.”
According to Şener, the government has failed to provide sufficient support during the pandemic. “They need to recognise the urgency and severity of the crisis as a first step. Then they need to include uninsured workers in state aid,” she said.
Although local authorities provided food parcels, they only included dried goods, which Şener said wasn’t enough. She called for greater use of subsidised markets and for social workers to be given a more active role in identifying families in need of help.
Zelal Yalçın, social policy coordinator for the İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality, told Inside Turkey that the city’s pandemic support programme received more than a million requests for help, from an urban area of 16 million.
“If you assume that each petitioner represents a family of four, even though some families are bigger, that’s a quarter of the city’s population who needed aid,” said Yalçın. “We reached about 600 people in need with our campaign that targeted households with less than 775 liras monthly income. Some 54 per cent of the aid was distributed to women.”
Yalçın believes more could be done to reach people in need.
“Did local and central government do enough to reach everyone? The answer to that question can only be yes if nobody in this city goes to bed hungry,” said Yalçın. “[But] that’s only possible if local and central government collaborate effectively.”
Inside Turkey tried to contact Ministry of Family, Labour and Social Services for comment, but without success.