Neoliberalism and Anti-labor Policies in Turkey

An assessment of the National Employment Strategy

The process of “transition” to a neoliberal economy, which started in the 1980s, was one of the most important steps taken during the whole course of the capitalist system in Turkey. The basic program of neoliberalism focused, as Pierre Bourdieu states, on “destroying the collective structures which may impede pure market logic.” Under such a wave of new neoliberal globalization, the state would be deprived of being the investor and/or producer and social distributor of income that would be used as a tool to promote capital. Thus, the labor market proves to be one of the best examples of such an extreme and radical transformation. In light of these neoliberal changes, the tight regulations in the European labor market, in contrast to U.S. labor markets, have been cited as the main reason for the high rate of unemployment in continental European countries.

In itself, the neoclassical economic tradition asserts that the lack, or insufficient provision, of unemployment insurance, the relative impotency of trade unions in the process of collective bargaining, the inferiority of minimum wages, and the presence of a vast informal sector where wages are even lower than the minimum wage, serve indications of the flexibility of the labor market. According to this approach, it is necessary to eliminate tight regulations in the labor market, if the labor supply is to be able to meet the demand in an optimum manner. This elimination legitimizes the arrangements that boost the profit of the capital. The new arrangements introduced into labor markets have similar aspects in both developed and developing countries, with both in the process of losing their boundaries by means of capital.

Considering labor markets, capital is not bound to any specific country. Rather, it enjoys the opportunities of multiple different countries. With the globalization of labor markets, in which the labor forces of various countries are forced to take part, international labor markets have developed a high degree of international mobility.

Considering the case of Turkey, one can easily understand the impossibility of reaching the target volume of exports by only looking at the apparent impotency of labor-intensive export goods, leading the deficit in the trade balance to grow in a consistent manner. Table 1 shows average monthly salaries in the selected countries, in comparison with those in the United States. Turkey enjoys competitive power in labor-intensive industries equipped with medium-low technologies. Therefore, the low labor cost seems to be the only crucial factor in preserving its competitive power. Turkey seems to lose her advantage over Asian countries such as China, India, Thailand, Indonesia, in spite of her labor cost advantages over several Latin American and Eastern European countries.

Having failed to diversify its exports and being characterized as a country focusing on labor-intensive sectors, Turkey is now faced with the obligation of restructuring labor costs and working conditions, in order to compete with the countries that are increasing their share in the global market because of their advantageous labor costs. With this in mind, the ÒNational Employment Strategy,Ó introduced by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, is nothing but another step in a series of attacks aimed at destroying the accumulated rights of the labor class.

Designed with the year 2023 in mind, the strategy will be implemented with an action plan during the period from 2012 to 2014, and the document was made public by Ministry of Labor and Social Security on Feb. 8, 2012. According to the document, the main objective of the national employment strategy is to “solve the structural prolems of labor markets in Turkey via imposing the relevant policies and measures and providing permanent solutions to unemployment by increasing the positive contribution of growth to the problem of unemployment.”

The main targets of the strategic document are outlined as follows:

1) to reinforce the link between education and employment;
2) to introduce flexibility into the labor market;
3) to increase the employment of women, youth and disabled people; 4) to reinforce the relation between employment and social protection.

The document anticipates four other more specific targets:
1) to decrease the unemployment rate to 5 percent;
2) to increase the employment ratio to 50 percent;
3) to increase non-agricultural growth flexibility from 0.52 to 0.62 percent;
4) to reduce non-agricultural informal employment from 29.1 percent to 15 percent.

As is suggested from the language of the document, the labor markets in Turkey, which seem to be extremely regulated in comparison to world labor markets, will be transformed into flexible markets following the increase in employment. The strategy document argues that the concept of the flexibility of the labor market entails Òa rate and measure of the ability to adapt to the modifications and fluctuations incurred into production cycles, and employees’ flexibility in establishing a reasonable balance in their occupational and leisure life, which these changes make necessary.” In other words, the concept of “flexibility” is promoted as a “contemporary” and “emancipatory” project.

Adnan Serdaroglu, Secretary General of DISK (The Confederation of Revolutionary Trade Unions of Turkey), criticizes the strategy as an indication of a “reconstruction of working life in Turkey” The document looks for a more flexible, and at the same time more insecure, market,Ó he says, adding, “this would lead to decreases in wages and trigger non-unionization and subcontracting. It is thus almost impossible to agree with such an arrangement.”

To summarize, authorizing private employment offices to establish temporary labor contracts seems to be nothing less than an attempt to curb the freedom of the workers and their intervention in the distribution of wealth through trade unions. Legitimizing part-time employment and periodic employment, private employment agencies actually eliminate the right to establish the trade unions. In its final form, the strategy document opens the way for the domination of market individualism by collapsing all collective structures, extremely concordant to the neoliberal winds. The great transformation in labor markets anticipated in the document is an attempt to increase the degree of domination of capital over labor, by more effectively transferring public resources on behalf of capital in an attempt to realize a great transformation in the global market.

The abolition of the seniority payment remains, therefore, another important regulation. Currently, the seniority payment consists of an amount equivalent to a wage corresponding to one year seniority. The plan proposes the same amount for three year seniority. Such a transformation would reduce labor costs further and ease the burden on the shoulders of the employer. Thus, a reduction in the cost may also enhance the global competitive power of the Turkish capitalist class. The plan to introduce this measure has been tabled off by the instruction of the Prime Minister until certain other conditions are met by the time this article was going to press.

In short, the national employment strategy considers its main responsibility to be the training of the labor force, and praises more flexible work as an “employment guarantee.” In that sense, it is a transformation of policy, adopting the anti-labor class attitude in an attempt to curb accumulated rights for finding solutions to the needs of employers. It could therefore also be considered to be the supreme stage of anti-labor policies of the AKP government.

About Cem Okan Tuncel

PhD, Department of Economics, Uludağ University, Bursa, Turkey