Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant construction site in Mersin (Credit: The Akkuyu NPP Construction company, official photos)

With 8,000 workers, the size of a large village, Turkey’s first ever nuclear power station is notable for its lack of a recognised trade union. Workers fear losing their job if they join one, while union representatives struggle to exert pressure on employers because of widespread subcontracting and precarious working conditions. 

Turkey’s 60-year dream of building a nuclear power station moved towards becoming a reality when as a deal with Russia was signed in May 2010. Construction of the Akkuyu plant, on the Mediterranean coast in the southeastern province of Mersin, began in 2015. Building work is ongoing and the power station is set to begin operations in 2023, the centennial of the Turkish republic. 

With employee numbers set to expand to 12,000 at the peak of the project, according to assistant construction director Dmitriy Romanet, the power station is often in the news for alleged violations of workers’ rights and breaches of health and safety rules. 

Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant construction site in Mersin (Credit: The Akkuyu NPP Construction company, official photos)

The lack of a trade union also reflects the weakness of organised labour in wider Turkish society. According to official statistics, only two million out of 14.3 million workers in Turkey are unionised. At Akkuyu, individual union membership is estimated to be no more than 100 out of the 8,000 employees, 80 per cent of whom are Turkish by nationality.

In recent years, a series of accidents have included incidents in October 2019, when two Ukrainian employees died when a bus carrying Akkuyu workers collided with a trolleybus. Eleven other passengers were injured. In April 2021, a drill operator died after being electrocuted. 

The project’s pandemic response has also drawn attention, with a vaccination drive beginning in June 2021, months after the nationwide effort. In December 2020, video footage shared online showed workers crowded together in the site cafeteria, while senior administrators enjoyed socially-distanced seating arrangements. 

Last September, employees blocked a road in protest at the fact they hadn’t been paid for months, and that company buses hadn’t been provided to take them to work. 

Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant construction site in Mersin (Credit: The Akkuyu NPP Construction company, official photos)

“Workers’ lives are being sacrificed for profit,” tweeted Alpay Antmen, a parliamentary deputy representing Mersin for the mainstream opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). He called for construction work to be halted. 

A 32-year-old worker who wished to be identified only as Ahmet told Inside Turkey that he has been employed at the site for two years. During that period, he said, he had been fired and re-hired twice through subcontractors, adding that employees fear losing their jobs if they try to unionise. 

“There aren’t enough company buses and they are filthy,” Ahmet said. “Same thing with dining halls and bathrooms. There are serious shortcomings in hygiene and work safety. The dormitories are a mess, and payments are irregular. Our demands for improving benefits and work hours are never met. Workers who speak out fear losing their jobs – because this has happened before.”

Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant construction site in Mersin (Credit: The Akkuyu NPP Construction company, official photos)

Another worker who wished to remain anonymous, 29-year-old Mehmet, said he had worked at Akkuyu for three years but had been forced to work under five different contractors in this time.

Workers have voiced concerns about issues on the construction site to no avail, Mehmet said, adding that hygiene, cleanliness and work safety were the biggest problems at the location. 

“Why won’t unions come to Akkuyu?” asked Mehmet. “Are they being blocked? We can’t organise ourselves because we’re afraid to lose our jobs but it would empower workers if unions came to the site and recruited members.”

Özgür Karabulut , chair of the Progressive Structure, Construction and Road Workers Union (Dev Yapı İş), told Inside Turkey that his organisation had tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to unionise workers at Akkuyu. There are between 35 and 40 members of the union at the 8,000-people work site, Karabulut said, adding that this was not a sustainable level of membership as workers wers constantly forced to switch between contractors. 

“Construction bosses don’t want unionized workers, which is why they hire almost solely through contractors,” Karabulut said, adding that the workers were constantly fired and rehired every three to five months. 

Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant construction site in Mersin (Credit: The Akkuyu NPP Construction company, official photos)

There are serious barriers awaiting anyone who wishes to unionise in Turkey, he continued.  “Workers’ online state accounts [a portal that gives Turkish citizens access to their social security details and other important documents and contains personal information] are monitored for hiring. They don’t want any unionised workers on the construction site,” Karabulut said. 

Housing, food and transportation are the main issues on site, Karabulut noted, adding that workers essentially work in “shacks that are reminiscent of the early 1900s”. Low pay and long hours are persistent problems for industrial workers in Turkey. 

“Workers are forced to continue under such conditions because we fail to create a practice to overcome barriers to unionising. Maybe we’re not able to create continued improvement in work conditions, but exposing the malpractices in the media creates marginal improvement,” he said.

Karabulut believes this is no substitute for unionisation, however, which is made more difficult by the fact that there are up to 600 contractors on site. His union is also barred from activities such as distributing pamphlets or holding meetings. 

“Workers are afraid of losing their jobs so we tried to meet with them off-site,” Karabulut said. “We have 35 to 40 members on the site but we’re in touch with over 300 workers. We’re unable to recruit them because they fear losing their jobs. It’s also possible for them to lose possible employment opportunities elsewhere if they’re marked out at Akkuyu. Employers will do anything to make sure they’re not employed elsewhere.”