As Turkey went into lockdown during the spring of 2020, the Ministry of Family, Labour and Social Services announced a Social Protection Shield plan to protect workers’ rights during the pandemic. The measures, which are set to continue until February 2021, include wage support, furlough pay and a temporary ban on layoffs.

Some experts, however, say that these measures encourage exploitation, leading to a rise in the number of unregistered workers and masking the true level of unemployment in Turkey. 

Gökçe Uysal. (Credit: Her personal Archive)

Gökçe Uysal, deputy director of Bahçeşehir University’s Centre for Economic and Social Research (BETAM), told Inside Turkey that making it harder for an employer to dismiss staff discouraged hiring.

“When the cost of dismissal increases,” she said, “employers tend towards unregistered work.”

In 2019, according to the Turkish Statistical Institute (TURKSTAT), 32.3 per cent of workers were not registered for social security. Uysal said that the pandemic was likely to prompt a rise in this figure. 

“In sectors like the service industry, which already had high rates of unregistered work, it’s likely to increase, she said, adding that while not all firms would look to hire unregistered workers, they would be under pressure to make employment practices as flexible as possible. 

Most at risk, Uysal continued, were young people, workers with lower levels of education and socially disadvantaged groups. 

“Migrants, most of all Syrians, generally work as unregistered employees,” she said. 

Employers don’t incur higher costs as a result of the layoff ban, because the reduced-hours wage support and furlough pay are covered by the state. But some experts say this still puts employees at a disadvantage.

“The employer doesn’t need to lay anyone off, but that doesn’t change the fact that workers have been struggling,” said Pınar Kaynak, a social scientist at TOBB Economics and Technology University in Ankara. “State aid isn’t enough, and workers are experiencing a serious loss of income.”

Workers not registered for social security usually make up around a third of the workforce, Kaynak explained, but this proportion fell to 29.1 per cent in March 2020.

 “This was because they lost their jobs, not because they moved up to better jobs,” she said. “The pandemic took away even their insecure employment.” 

Kaynak added that forthcoming employment data from the last three months of 2020 is likely to show a similar trend, because unregistered employment rises when the Turkish economy is thriving and falls when it is depressed. Workers without social security are always the first to be let go during a crisis.

A further problem was that the layoff ban does not entirely prevent employers from sacking workers. Fulden Kantürer is a 28 year-old lawyer from Izmir, a city in western Turkey, who applied for short-time working allowance – one of the measures included in the labour ministry’s support package – from her employer. After three months, however, she resigned.

Fulden Kantürer (Credit: Her personal Archive)

“The public doesn’t fully understand the layoff ban,” said Kantürer, who specialises in employment rights. “An employer can still dismiss workers for a ‘valid’ reason.” 

These include the end of fixed-term contracts, the closure of a workplace, and the end of certain construction projects.

Kantürer thinks that although the layoff ban gives employers an incentive to use unregistered workers, increased exploitation of registered workers is the more likely scenario. 

“In normal times, employers didn’t have the right to make employees take unpaid leave indefinitely, but now they have this right,” she said. 

To be eligible for the government’s short-time working allowance, furloughed employees have to have been paying social insurance for a minimum number of days. If they don’t meet that threshold, then the employer can apply for an unpaid leave payment of 1,177 liras per month, worth just 40 per cent of the national minimum wage. According to the Confederation of Turkish Trade Unions (TÜRK-İŞ), almost two million people are currently receiving unpaid leave payments. But because their contracts can’t officially be terminated, they are not included in statistics, which place the unemployment rate at around 13 per cent. 

“When people are on unpaid leave, employers don’t have to make social insurance payments, and the time spent on leave is not counted in severance pay,” Kantürer said. “So during the pandemic, the cost of employing people has been greatly reduced. The state has effectively left workers to the mercy of employers.”

Unregistered workers, meanwhile, can find themselves ineligible for the state’s pandemic support measures. 

TK, a restaurant employee in the western province of Tekirdağ, officially retired a year ago but has continued working because his pension wasn’t enough to live on. In the early months of 2020, he was working out his probation period in a new job, during which time he wasn’t registered for social security. 

When the pandemic arrived, TK’s employer extended his probation period to avoid registering him. In April, the restaurant closed for two months. 

“As I worked unregistered, I didn’t have an income for those two months,” he said. “I thought it was ok to work unregistered because I’m retired, and don’t need to make pension contributions. But when the restaurant closed, I couldn’t get a penny of support [from the state].”

TK’s restaurant has now reopened as a takeaway service, on reduced hours. 

“I work for one week and my colleague works for the other week,” he said. “My income has been cut in half. If demand for takeaways goes down the restaurant might close and my income will disappear. I’m trapped between either going broke or getting sick. It’s tough times.”

FD is an immigrant from China who has been living in Turkey for ten years. He first came here to study, but decided to stay on, making his living as a musician and barista in Istanbul. When bars and cafés shut down, FD became unemployed. 

“Before the pandemic, I was paid by the day,” he said. “I didn’t have a regular income.” 

Unregistered work was already common in his sector, but had increased since the pandemic arrived. 

“Employers use the pandemic as an excuse. Of course they’ve been hit financially, but not as hard as their workers. Employers were supported by the state, but unregistered workers in the entertainment and service sectors have become almost invisible,” he said. 

The Ministry of Family, Labour and Social Services did not respond to a request for comment. However, in April, the government issued new regulations aimed to give employers an incentive to use registered workers. They will receive financial support from the state if they re-employ workers dismissed between January and April 2020, or if they create new jobs or hire people who previously worked unregistered.