Strolling through the streets of Tuzla, we pass by shops and street sellers selling blue overalls, gloves and security helmets, workshops producing larger or smaller ship parts, the manifold supplier industry, workers gathered around a minibus serving as a mobile teahouse during breaks, men smoking, smoking and working for the subcontractor, the ‘taşeron’. Life south of Tuzla, it seems, caters almost exclusively its shipyards. In 2008, 30,000 – 35,000 workers were employed at the Aydınlı Bay that officially hosts the Tuzla Shipbuilding Region, the biggest in Turkey accounting for about four fifth of the shipbuilding production in this country. However, only 10-20% of these men were employed directly at one of the 48 shipyards, with longer-term contracts and regular insurance. The remaining 80-90 % were hired indirectly by the many subcontracting firms (called ‘taşeron’), employing between 3 and 300 workers each. Labour in Tuzla is fragmented, organised mainly in informal networks, working conditions are precarious, employers mainly with maritime trade background are inexperienced in industry and are hostile against grassroots worker’s organisations.
Growth of the shipbuilding industry based on subcontracting agreements and its effects on worker’s lives made Tuzla famous in a sad way: in 2008, 29 workers, and in 2009, 15 workers died when welding, grinding, painting, falling down from the scaffold and the deck, electrocuted, died in explosions, squeezed between and under huge steel blocks at Turkey’s shipyards. Most of them were working at Tuzla.
We talked to Aslı Odman, an activist studying the working conditions and the struggles to improve them with research and academic expertise. She is especially interested in what happened after 2008 after the financial crisis in this district dominated by the shipbuilding industry. She is an academic working at the Istanbul Bilgi University and member of the Independent Monitoring Comittee on Working Conditions at the Tuzla Shipbuilding Region.
How would you describe the social geography of Tuzla?
The first thing to know about Tuzla is that it is one of the 39 districts of Istanbul, a city of 14 million people. It is situated at the far eastern edge, neighbouring the industrial region of Gebze. It contains five out of a total of eight organised industrial zones in Istanbul, the others being the leather, chemical, painting, marble industries and the official shipyard region. Its industrial functions are predominant. Most of its nearly 200,000 inhabitants live from and on industry which was formed or shifted from central places in a piecemeal process after 1980. Industry in this district is a phenomenon of the last 30 years. But even this recently formed industrial predominance is being challenged now by the development of educational and residential functions rather in the North. A North-South Divide seems to have developed. For the moment, four universities out of nearly thirty in Istanbul have chosen Tuzla as the location of their campuses. Two of them are specialised on issues related to navigation. One of them is the recently established Piri Reis University and the other one is the shipbuilding engineering faculty of Istanbul Technical University. The remaining two are private, foundation universities hosting different faculties: Sabancı University and Okan University. Tuzla is home to a sui generis juxtaposition of five organised industrial zones, the biggest Shipyard Region, four universities and the Formula One: How do these functions survive side by side? Numerically, Tuzla is still a worker’s district both in terms of living and working population. When I was doing an in-depth research in a single shipyard I found out that most of the workers at this specific shipyard were living in a zone between Kartal and Gebze, two neighbouring districts of Tuzla. Unlike many other dispersed industries in Istanbul where people have to commute to work long distances but one where people have the identity of being residents of the district or zone they work in.
Do the inhabitants actually think that they live in Istanbul or do they live in Tuzla?
Let me tell you one striking anecdote about this: There was this Labour Festival Week at Boğaziçi University in 2008 and students wanted to invite a worker to the Bebek Campus. I asked a friend from Tuzla about this and he accepted the invitation. When we met in Karaköy, himself having taken the suburb train and the regular ship, he said that he hasn’t been to this ‘part of the city’ for the last 16 years. (editor’s note: which is right opposite the historical center and approximately 2 hour travel by public transport away from Tuzla). Istanbul is an abstraction in Tuzla and should be treated as such by urban sociologists. There is no single unified Istanbul despite the shaky general image-making campaigns especially within the ‘Istanbul: Cultural Capital of Europe 2010’. A Tuzla worker’s or his wife’s Istanbul stops in Kartal. Strolling along the coastline and going to the shopping mall in Kartal is one of the most outreaching and extraordinary activities outside working life. If you imagine how hard these people work in the shipyards and that going out in Istanbul depends more and more on the ability of consuming something, this becomes quite understandable.
What changed with the crisis?
The global economic crisis hit the sector very severely, because shipbuilding and maritime trade are global sectors in essence. A crisis in the world economy means less flows of commodities which are transported to 95 % by means of maritime transport. This affects the demand for shipbuilding. We know that at least half of the workers have been fired, which adds up to around ten - fifteen thousand workers fired in the past one and a half, two years. And the remaining workers tell us that the daily wages went down between one-third and half of the pre-crisis level. We’ve been told that many workers especially those who pay a rent went back to their hometowns. This is why the bachelor’s rooms (see box) have nearly disappeared for the moment to surely reappear during the next boom period. Bachelor’s rooms had provided a rapid solution in times of expansion of the shipbuilding sector and seasonal workers settled in these bachelor’s houses. Though the bachelor room settlers form a small proportion of the whole dock workers, their situation was generalised by the mainstream press to cover the overall living and working conditions of the Tuzla workers. During 2008 when the issue of the serial fatal accidents was hotly debated in Turkey, the press transmitted mostly scenes from the ‘dramatic bachelor rooms’ where 10 to 15 men lived under miserable conditions. Certainly miserable and unacceptable conditions prevail in these rooms but the underlying tautologic message of the mainstream media was inacceptable too: ‘Look, the Tuzla shipyard workers consist mainly of ‘uneducated peasants’ recently having immigrated from kurdish regions and this is why these people are dying in the serial fatal accidents because they are ‘uneducated kurdish peasants’. My colleague who did a documentary on Tuzla calls this type of representation the ‘pornography of reality’ that obscures the real responsibles, the illegal actions of the mighty actors in Tuzla. We knew that this representation was wrong. Now we see this as well. Serial, fatal accidents are going on, but there are hardly any bachelor’s rooms anymore. What is everyday practice now is the bankruptcy of many subcontracting firms not having paid the workers their wages for ages. Now for example I read and listen of many cases from Tuzla and other shipbuilding regions where workers haven’t been paid for one to eight months. Subcontractors declared bankruptcy, they don’t pay and they disappear. And the main employers don’t take the responsibility for the unpaid wages. The struggle to make the main employers responsible for taking over the debts of the subcontractors who were working for them is still going on. This struggle has replaced the predominant struggle of the pre-crisis period which revolved around ‘the right to live’ against the serial fatal accidents.
What we heard in 2008 was still that actually the whole capacity of the ship building sector in Tuzla was exhausted until 2012. What happened?
Yes, the order books were full in May 2008, this was not an exaggeration. These orders have been cancelled starting from June/July 2008. It is a huge cost to a maritime trader with a maritime fleet to have ships built but not to be able to rent or use them actively in transport. They call this the ‘lay-bys’. During the expansion period 2002-2007 over 400 ships were built. However, in 2008, 170 ship orders were cancelled. This shows that the whole nationalistic euphoria on the ‘Turkish shipbuilding economy being the star of the national economic growth’ was a bubble. Not sustainable. The young sector couldn’t foresee globally the trajectory of the sector and didn’t have a longterm plan. They let workers work intensively, 7 days a week, 24 hours a day round the clock. And here comes the crisis. The motto was really “cease the time, squeeze the workforce and work on as many orders as possible.” The euphoric discourse of the state and the employers changed in a couple of months following the economic reality. For the remaining workers, safety and health regulations didn’t seem to change after the crisis. They work just as intensively as during the expansion period. This is also why serial accidents go on. In 2009, unfortunately 15 workers in different shipyard regions, not only Tuzla have died. Since the dawn of the crisis it adds up to over 20 workers having left their lives at shipyards which is –compared to the employment numbers- nearly the same fatal accident rate as during the times of the economic expansion. When the order books were full, workers were led to work intensively and much more than the legal maximum hours in this heavy industrial sector. Now during the crisis, there are less active workers so keeping the same employment number is not rational to the employers anymore. Less workers have to work more.
What else changed with the crisis, especially socially?
I can share with you some impressions rather than analysis for the time being. Physically the Shipbuilding Region is much more silent. You don’t hear the humming of the crowd that much. We are talking more about the South of the district which is oriented totally towards the shipbuilding. Literally and physically it’s much more silent. I don’t see the amele pazarı (see box) any more, so I guess chances to find a job there is reduced. I think this amele pazarı near the shipbuilding industry for small construction work etc. shifted towards the North, where jobs are still available in the construction sector.
Which are the sectors former dockworkers can work in alternatively?
When I talked to workers, they said, the first solution to unemployment is going back to the hometown, memleket, if they have still relatives over there. At that point we should consider that still nearly 30 % of Turkey’s population live on and from agriculture. During summer labour intensive harvest types like hazelnut and tea attract people. So the summer period might have absorbed parts of the shock of the crisis, also because of the availability of seasonal jobs in tourism in the south. With seasonal employment during the summer time in tourism and agriculture part of the wages could be compensated, which were lost in the shipyard region. Then the many informal textile workshops and the still expanding construction sector, i.e. in Kurtköy around the second airport, offers scant possibilities to earn some money for a living. One should check the situation at Tuzla’s organised industrial centres as well in terms of job situation which I didn’t do so far.
What are the plans of the municipalities for the region of Tuzla?
Well, there are two local institutions both affiliated to the same liberal-conservative party, AKP which have a saying over Tuzla. One is the Greater Municipality of Istanbul, İBB. It has an extremely extended regulation authority over all Istanbul, urban, rural, forest areas since 2004. And with this radically extended spatial authority it released its first Metropolitan Plan (İstanbul Çevre Düzeni Planı) in 2006 which was appealed by professional chambers and relaunched in a modified version in June 2009. Between these two different versions of the same plan, 2006 and 2009, there are continuities and changes on what concerns Tuzla.
The striking continuity between these two is the pejorative attitude they take against industrial functions. The whole spirit of the plan can be summarised as ‘Istanbul should be the future globally competitive financial centre’. The Plan says that Istanbul should be 1stanbul. High-tech service and trade functions should provide for the competitivety. This implies that the industrial working and living population of Tuzla has not been taken into account in future projections. The plan has the long-term imaginary or the fantasy of a Tuzla without industry. Instead, logistics, R&D functions in cooperation with the existing universities are underlined as future promising functions. Additionally, Formula One should attract substantial luxury tourism which it didn’t do since 2005.
Tuzla is conceptualised as the port to Istanbul – so this is where Istanbul starts in terms of goods transfer from the East, also because it’s close to the biggest industrial zone of the Marmara region. This projection seems to be the only realistic one since there is already a de facto agglomeration of hangars and depots in the Orhanlı subdistrict. It has its feet on the ground and is not conflicting with the industrial functions of the district. But thinking about the projected high quality tourism centred around Formula One… that’s a pure fantasy! Formula One started in 2005 by way of a huge state campaign. It was propagated that rich tourists with a lot of money to throw around would come, ten of thousands, hundred of thousands, even millions of them. Fancy numbers were pronounced to justify the extraordinary and irregular state financial and bureaucratic support given to Ecclestone, the Formula One CEO. The Tuzla municipality declared that ‘Tuzla should become the Monaco of Turkey!’. ‘Rich anglosaxons’ would come with their yachts to watch Formula One, spend money like crazy for expensive hotels, oriental kitsch and Tuzla meatballs.
İBB talked of turning the shipbuilding region into a boat show area where only capital-intensive yachts would be produced and marketed. The former Tuzla Municipality, overwhelmed with this dream of their older brother, started to negotiate with a german company to have built a railway system that would link the Aydınlı Bay of the shipbuilding region with Formula One in the north. What they projected and propagated in these discourses, can not be realised unless they really would throw most of the the current inhabitants into the sea or there needs to be a class cleansing, “classicide” if you want. You need to extinct a whole industrial class in order to realise this.
Now the current Tuzla municipality (since March 2009) doesn’t embrace the railway project though it is affiliated with the same party as the former one. The Istanbul Park has been taken over by the Formula One international, all the Turkish participants of the venture incurred great losses out of this business, the hundred thousands of tourist did not come. What is leftover are huge former water-protection or green areas given free for construction by big groups like Aziz Yıldırım, Doğan Group and Saray Group etc. Tourism is not that much stressed in the 2009 modification of the Metropolitan plan for Tuzla and I think that Formula One fiasco plays a huge role in it. There is still a stress on tourism in local plans, but it has shifted rather to the centre of Tuzla - restoration of the old Ottoman houses, false-nature-parks with artificial waterfalls- a classic for todays municipal Zeitgeist- and ‘prestige shopping streets’ aiming at internal tourism.
On the long term and this is where we come to the gist of the story, the municipality of Istanbul has three criteria, they count as reasons for decentralising industry. These are first no possibility for spatial expansion, secondly it doesn’t use capital-intensive technology and thirdly it doesn’t serve international markets. And two of them are valid for the shipbuilding region in Tuzla: Squeezed in space, no possibility for spatial expansion and labour-intensive. But it produces mainly for international markets. So it is a candidate for decentralisation. And this has already started in a market-induced way, i.e. in a de-facto way by the mighty shipyard owners in Tuzla. To sum up, both the Metropolitan plan and the smaller bundle of plans of district municipalities are far from the social geography. You can also see this by looking at the now abondoned ‘Revival Project of the Kamil Abduş Lagoon Lake in Tuzla’. The former municipality invested so much money to rehabilitate this lake directly neighbouring the shipbuilding region without even mentioning the first possible users of the lake, the shipyard workers. Please visit this abandoned project lake now with which the Tuzla Municipality won the Environment Award by the Istanbul AKP directorate. They have a decontexualised, deterritorialised or a photo-shopped image of the district they project into the future. Specifically referring to Tuzla this means ignoring the industrial living and working population of the district.
So Tuzla shipyards are being decentralised outside of Istanbul?
The Tuzla shipyard region is a specific example of a single sector centralised nearly at a single location of production, which is the Aydınlı Bay. This started to change in 2006-2007, when the shipbuilding industry made a peak. There has been a movement of opening shipyards at the Black Sea coast (Ünye, Samsun, Trabzon, Ereğli), Marmara Sea coast (Yalova, İzmit, Gelibolu), in the South at the Mediterranean (Yumurtalık). Also in “free zones”, where Turkish tax, environment and labour codes are not applied in the same way as it does in the main land. This development was directly supported by the ‘maritime state’ (denizci devlet) in terms of granting state lands, making easier the bureaucratic procedures, tax exemptions and so on. Most of the expanders are big shipyard owners at Tuzla. For example take Yalova, one hour by ship away from Tuzla, also at the Marmara Sea. Subcontracting firms and with them workers and know-how move from Tuzla to Yalova. Along with that serial fatal accidents were transferred too: to Yalova, İzmit, Ereğli.
Do employers from Tuzla employ workers from Tuzla in Yalova as well?
Yes. Even port facilities between Tuzla and Yalova are ready, provided by the municipal see line, IDO. Because of the crisis the production went back for the moment, but once there is a recovery there will be a vivid labour network and migration movement organised by subcontractors and induced the shipyard workers in Tuzla. Most of the older shipyard owners in Tuzla also own shipyards in Yalova. There are two subcontracting firms –as much as I could find out- out of the over thousand, who made it to shipyard owners in Yalova. So there is an organic link between these two places, on personal, labour, shipyard and subcontractor level. Tuzla will always remain the power centre of the shipyard region, even if plans about total removal of the industry from this district has been openly pronounced many times. The biggest shipyard owner and maritime trader Group, Kalkavan in Tuzla, has invested at the Mediterranean coast in a free zone called Yumurtalık into shipbuilding. Another member of this group invests on a large scale in Gelibolu. So the future large scale shipyards outside Tuzla will be owned by the already large scale shipbuilders in Tuzla. This centralisation process has happened very fast. I think that small shipyards will be eaten up by the big shipyards when this crisis is over. Like in Germany where there are in total 6 shipbuilding groups. The difference between Turkey and Germany is that all shipbuilding companies have maritime trading groups behind them whereas in Germany shipyard owning six groups do not own fleets but have some industrial background in iron and steel industries. Until now the ship-owning groups operating in Turkey did not constitute conglomerates operating in different sectors and were owned by ‘local capital groups’ with a maritime trade background. This is changing with the slow flow of foreign direct investments into the sector. For example the Azerbaijan based group PALMALI that bought a shipyard in Yalova is a global player investing in energy, luxury tourism, construction etc. Remember that the public heard a lot about the serial fatal accidents in Tuzla because it was in Istanbul, press always delivers more news about Istanbul than any other province. The trade union struggling for the improvement of the working conditions, Limter-İş is also placed in Tuzla like most of the shipyard workers. The togetherness of working and living has very positive effects on the visibility of the lot of the workers. Therefore we should ask ourselves what will become out of this visibility once the shipyards are scattered around the Anatolian coast lines into provinces with less urban and definitely no metropolitan backgrounds. The legally and socially already fragmented labour force in Tuzla will additionally be scattered spatially.
Documentary on Tuzla (2008): ‘4857’ film, turkish with english subtitles