Authoritarian but Flexible: Turkey and recent labour market reforms

The AKP’s reforms to ‘flexibilise’ the labour market will weaken workers’ rights and further consolidate authoritarian neoliberalism in Turkey

Mehmet-100In the last few years, ‘authoritarianism’ has been used widely by mainstream academic circles, Western media and international civil society organisations to define the character of the political regime under the AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi or the Justice and Development Party) in Turkey.  Analyses have rightly focused on President Erdoğan’s personalised and centralised power, human rights violations, and a diminishing of press freedom and freedom of expression.  However, this piece argues that, although ‘authoritarianism’ has reached inconcealable levels in recent years, it is not a recent development and has been a fundamental aspect of neoliberal state restructuring in Turkey since the 1980 military coup, which also characterised earlier periods of AKP rule—conventionally identified with ‘democracy’ and ‘reformism’.

Labour market restructuring has been the most significant facet of this authoritarian neoliberal orientation. Following the 1980 military coup, Turkish state managers during the 1980s adopted an authoritarian trade union policy and passed industrial relations legislation which took on militant labour unions.  When it came to power in 2002, the AKP took over this authoritarian legacy, which had eliminated labour resistance to a great extent, and the party set out to achieve the allegedly unaccomplished aspect of labour market restructuring: ‘flexibilising’ Turkey’s labour market.  Indeed, ‘rigidity’ of the labour market has been one of the main complaints of Turkey’s business organisations and the IMF and World Bank couplet since the 1980s.

Although such complaints were dubious considering the huge scale of informality in the labour market, they served to legitimise the AKP’s ‘flexibilisation’ discourse and further labour market restructuring. The 2003 Labour law was the first step in this direction. It introduced and institutionalised new forms of flexible employment and increased the control and disciplinary power of employers in the workplace, as well as reducing the extent of ‘job security’. It paved the way for further precarity, insecurity and de-unionisation in the labour market.

However, as there was no decisive employment policy after the country’s major economic crisis in 2001 unemployment levels remained at double-digit levels throughout the 2000s. The AKP’s macroeconomic approach was instead focused on achieving anti-inflationary credibility and a high primary surplus and their policy orientation created ‘jobless growth’ which was reliant on the pre-crisis bubbling world economy.  The effects of the 2008 global financial crisis exacerbated the unemployment problem in Turkey which officially reached 16% in February 2009.  As this was creating legitimacy problems for state managers, once again ‘rigidity’ of the labour market was blamed.  Minister of Finance Mehmet Şimşek blamed strict employment conditions and the existence of severance pay for the high unemployment levels.  This was then used as a justification for further flexibilisation attempts following the crisis.

In this context, the AKP government started to put forward a more systematic and long-term restructuring process for further labour market flexibility from 2009 onwards. The ‘Private Employment Offices Bill’ which recently passed into law, dates back to August 2009. This infamous act has been named the ‘slavery law’ by unions as it ceases the labour relation we used to know between the employer and the worker.  According to the regulations contained in the legislation a company will now be able to hire temporary workers through a private employment agency however, the main contract of employment will be between the agency and the worker.  Hence, the employer will be relieved of their responsibility in terms of wage levels and other social rights (e.g. severance payments and social security) of the workers, which would in turn further depoliticise the workplace.  Needless to say, this curb on the rights of workers is likely to subordinate them to minimum wage employment and make unionisation almost impossible, due to their increasingly precarious and temporary working conditions.

In 2009 this piece of legislation was vetoed by the then AKP-rooted president Abdullah Gül, mainly because of pressure from ‘government-friendly’ unions. However, in its third term in power (2011-2015), the AKP government incorporated this regulation into a wider and long-term labour market policy: the National Employment Strategy (NES) 2014-2023. The overall objective of the NES is to introduce measures and policies which will increase the flexibility of the Turkish labour market, and which is justified with references to EU legislation and the so-called ‘flexicurity’ approach.

The introduction of rented labour through private employment agencies is one of the most important aspects of the NES. Indeed, in the document, ‘the lack of legislation for temporary work via private employment offices’ is considered to be one of the most significant impediments to the widespread introduction of more flexible types of work in Turkey.  Following the elections in November 2015 which gave a majority to the AKP once again, this ‘reform’ became a priority for the new government, and flexibility was once again highlighted in the government’s programme to tackle the unemployment problem. The legislation was finally approved by the General Assembly on May 6th.

Unlike the recent French case where similar labour market flexibilisation attempts triggered serious working class discontent and politicisation against the Hollande administration, the labour resistance to the above-mentioned legislation in Turkey has been very weak. The pro-government Union Confederations either remained silent or only issued press releases to criticise the Act. Demonstrations by the progressive union confederation DISK remained limited and failed to politicise the working class in opposition to the law.  This situation is understandable if one considers the authoritarian practices of the regime and recent security concerns which have paralysed society.  After the approval of the Act, the pro-government unions in particular have attempted to lobby against the law and have called on President Erdoğan to veto it, as they did in 2009 when the law was first approved.  This proved to be a very naive and inefficient approach, and expectedly, Erdoğan approved the law on May 20th.  Indeed, this regulation reflects a broader policy approach of the Turkish state; a part of National Employment Strategy of 2014-2023 which was introduced before Erdoğan became president in 2014 under his third term in office as Prime Minister.

Overall, this new legislation and the regulations it contains are perfectly consistent with the AKP’s approach to labour markets and its attempts at flexibilisation since it came to power in 2002. It will add a new dimension to labour-capital relations, and it is likely to further fragment the working class and increase deunionisation which would in turn serve to prevent any potential labour-led resistance against the AKP and its authoritarian neoliberal regime.