Notes from a Turkish resistance


October 15, 2018

Gebze Organized Industrial zone is located in a socially isolated maze of highways about an hour drive South-East of central Istanbul. The area, east of Marmara Region and north of Gulf of Izmit, contains 13 percent of Turkish industry. It’s famous for, among others, the automotive industry, the tyre and rubber industry, and petro-chemical industry. From Gebze centre you can see the blue water of the Gulf, but the view from the industrial zone is one of warehouses and the occasional flashing metal of white parked cars. For the past 154 days it has been the site of an ongoing resistance of one hundred and thirty two Flormar workers, manufacturers of cosmetic care products, who are protesting their right to form a trade union, caught between a Turkish management structure and the French brand Yves Rocher, which acquired 71 percent shares in 2018. I spent a day with the resisters at the end of June, on the 45th day of the resistance, and spoke with representatives of Petrol-İş trade union1 and a number of female resisters2 to understand more about their dynamic and demands.

The trade union environment in Turkey is generally weak scattered with recent, mainly sporadic and isolated, strike victories drawn upon in comparison to this one by its members and supporters. Novamade Drug Factory, Antalya, 2007, 447 days of strike ending in victory, where women formed the majority of the strikers; Bericap, Gebze, 2011, 209 days strike ending in victory; the UPS strike, 2011, by the All Transport Workers’ Union (TÜMTİS), a union whose members were subsequently taken to court last year. Notable women’s strikes include the 1964 Berec Battery Factory strike and their participation in the first formal strike in Malatya in 1965.

Eighty percent of the resisters are women, reflecting similar proportions of the workforce. Women’s labour force participation and employment rates have traditionally been low in Turkey, typically concentrated in small-scale home-based enterprises or the service sector. In other factories women’s bodies are controlled and regulated, enforced pregnancy periods, menstruation calculators, cameras in dressing rooms. In the Flormar factory, female workers are allowed to wear free Flormar make-up products inside the factory, otherwise strictly banned outside. The life of a female industrial worker in Turkey is not only to work, to clean, to organise, to be biologically regulated and ordered, but also to look ‘beautiful’ and ‘feminine’ while at work. The kind of beauty that Flormar sells. The slogan of the resistance, “The Resistance, not Flormar, makes us beautiful [Flormar değil direniş güzelleştirir]” is a fierce response to this.

Gender relations continue to inform the relationship between employer and worker, and between global capital and local working conditions in Turkey, impacting the type of work, employment security and everyday dynamics within the workplace. They also inform the structure of trade unions (only six per cent of Petrol-İş members are women). This resistance reflects the co-alignment of multiple different realities, the consciousness of workers across multiple demographics, the impact on labour regimes of production being re-organized transnationally, questions over the relationship between the labour and feminist movement. Its dynamic belies an otherwise bleak landscape for unions, women workers and the industrial landscape in Turkey.

Background to the Resistance

The resistance comes within the context of poor working conditions, increasing health and safety violations of the worker environment and poor organizational capacity of the workers. The 1980s restructuring of the Turkish industrial landscape in neoliberal terms, as in other contexts, has contributed to the fragmented work environment, relationship between work and private lives. Following labour laws and regulations which have remained essentially unchanged since the military coup in 1980, a labour union can enter into collective bargaining as long as the union organises 40 percent of the workers at the same workplace. According to the law, no worker should be fired because of her/his union-related activities, although this is not always enforced in practice.

In January, a group of 60-70 Flormar workers approached the Gebze branch of Petrol-İş trade union with the desire to be unionised. They had heard from workers, friends and family members, in other factories about the benefits of being members of a union – higher salaries, better regulated working hours, lunch fees, higher workplace security, sick leave, provision of shoes and coal aid. The correct protocols were set in motion - arranging a commission, reaching the 40 percent of workers (41 percent in this case, 157 workers) required to take a valid certificate from the Ministry of Labour (which gives the right to take a place at the bargaining table for collective decision making), the validation and issuing of the certificate.

The employer, according to their rights, rejected the certified request to join the Union in court. They pressurised the new members of the union, began firing some of those who had sought to become unionised. The largest numbers were sacked just before Ramadan, in an act of deliberate humiliation. Other workers who supported their unionised colleagues were also dismissed. Those fired were denied the standardised unemployment wage, 1000TL3 per month, usually given if the dismissal is unjust and often saving whole families from destitution. According to Flormar, the resisters ‘chose’ to be fired. As a consequence of the employer’s refusal to recognise that the majority of signatories had been gained, the current resistance is not a ‘legal’ strike, which alters the power dynamic and puts the resisting workers at an even greater disadvantage since their resistance is not intervening in the production process.

Since the first day of the resistance the members, slowly increasing in number as more Flormar workers are fired for supporting the resisters, have been coming to the picket line from eight to three every day, arriving by buses provided by Petrol-İş, who are also providing them with 500TL4 per month, a very minimal amount which doesn’t cover their basic needs. They sit, talk, exchange stories on the pavement outside the factory. Every now and again an outburst of energy takes them to the open road for a spontaneous halay folk dance, accompanied by the loudspeaker of their shuttle bus and honks of passing heavy freight vehicles (“Halay is like a battery,” says one of the resisters). This is the first experience of political engagement for most of them. Three times a day, during two çay [tea] breaks and a lunch break, they rise to gather at the gates of the factory to shout encouragement at their former colleagues to join their cause. Their former colleagues are gathered in the yard outside, dressed in azure blue uniforms with matching caps, smoking, talking. They are watched closely by their manager in militant surveillance, ready to fire anyone who shows support for the resistance. By day 90, plastic grass walls had been erected (“Seasons of sons green valley will be our strands of life” prophesized one resister in response). On day 84, the police started a campaign of intimidation, including blocking their loudspeakers. On day 87 Yves Rocher hired buses to block the Flormar factory entrance, flattening tyres to prevent removal and using surveillance cameras to intimidate the resisters.

The resistance strategy is two-pronged. Firstly to continue exerting pressure on the Flormar management at local levels. Secondly, to exert pressure at an international level. Since Yves Roche is a French company, Petrol-İş has been in contact with the French national trade union, the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (CFDT) to agitate Yves Roche on behalf of Flormar workers. Representatives from Petrol-İş and the resisting workers travelled to the headquarters of Industrial Global Union in Geneva and Paris to meet with CFDT representatives in mid-September, making press statements and discussing further strategies. However there are significant challenges involved in the development of deeper and more proactive solidarity across borders and social groups. According to Mustafa Mesut Tekik, the Organizing and Educational Secretary, the “international response has not been as concrete as we [Petrol-Iş] hoped.” He speculates that reasons for this may be the weak organizing power of the French union, and the continued line taken by Yves Roche that the Flormar workers are being treated in compliance with Turkish labour laws, even though these are not compliant with EU labour laws.

Technical and social composition of the workforce

The technical composition (how the workers are organised by capital) and social composition (the conditions in which workers and their family relationship are composed in society)5 of the Flormar workers are important to understanding their resistance. Technically, they were fragmented within the workplace, divided between Eye-Shadow friends, Mascara friends, Nail Polish friends. Further divisions were created by spatial arrangements, working hours, between experience levels, between the twenty percent men and eighty percent women. Workers who had worked for ten years were receiving the same salary as those for one year. These are workers who live their lives in isolation within their designated workplace, within the isolated concrete squared industrial zone, and within the limbo transport spaces that move them between professional and private lives. They are the industrial worker caught between automation and manual labour, between individualised and anonymous yet collective workspaces, between local and international labour rights. They live their lives in extractive enclaves, spatially segregated and policed, part of the export-oriented strategy rooted in foreign investment which various Turkish governments have been engaged in since 1980.

Zuhal, 34, worked in the Department of Mascara. Her job was to pour into pots the raw materials which compound into mascara samples, then mix with an industrial sized spoon. There is no automation, she was the one to pour, stir, lift, carry. She had an accident at work, the result of a high pressure pot exploding. It would have hit her face had she been positioned differently. Selvar, 25, worked in the Nail Polish Division, placing brushes on top of the nail bottles, controlling the machine, changing the colours of the products. Working at the operating machine required standing long hours; she was able to sit only if she was collecting products from the production line conveyor belt. Elif, 30, worked in the Eye Shadow Department, on the eye shadow palette. She was one of the ten workers sitting in a line putting a different colour on the palette, either the “Natural love” or “Iconic colors” edition at a cost of 40 TL, 20TL in the sale.6 Today there is automation, but previously they used silicon machines, working by putting the materials inside the machine – it was hot and sticky labour, you had to be careful not to damage your hands. Nulhan, 33, was in a supervisor position. She was in charge of five machines in the mascara department, arranging all their work during the day and night. “Mascara is like coal. If you change the colour you have to clean all parts of the machine. The machine has over one hundred parts. It was a very difficult job.”

In terms of social composition, the resisters are a mixed demographic. Taking the worker as a social being with relational processes and networks which impact on their ability to produce labour, and understanding that not all workers and their labour powers are reproduced equally,7 aspects such as sex, race, age, family composition, distance from work, access to welfare support, impact not only the workers relationship to work but also their ability to resist. In the picket line there are different ages, ranging from 19 years old to 42, different political allegiances, different religious pieties, different marital status and living arrangements, different distances of home from factory, different experiences of employment at Flormar. Many of the women have children, some are married, others are single or widowed, some are care providers to elderly relatives. Three of the resisters are pregnant, five are disabled. Some women have already had to fight different struggles with family members in order to work in the first place. Their social circumstances, such as dependent family members and financial situation, also impact their ability to continue resisting.

Many of the women discuss the newfound solidarity they have found in the everyday conversations they have on the picket line, which make up the day-to-day reality of the resistance. This defragmentation to solidarity, realisation of shared commonalities, not only as workers but also as women, is one of the mobilisers to their determination to continue. Politics, about party politics, the politics of the strike, of being workers, of being women, are also discussed in this newly carved space, although the resisters by no means previously shared the same views. Nevertheless the resistance has consolidated a belief in unionisation and greater class consciousness.

“We are talking about political issues a lot”, says Zulhar. “When we have political discussions we have different political opinions, but we come to a point where the discussion does not continue because we fear disrespecting each other. At these moments I leave the political discussion space, since I do not agree with my colleagues. This has also affected my life. Politically and ideologically, I have decided to find a unionised factory job. This is what the resistance has directed me towards.”

Forty days into the resistance, on 24 June 2018, snap joint Presidential and Parliamentary elections were held in Turkey. During the run up to the elections the resisting Flormar workers were a popular photo opportunity for those portraying themselves as supportive of the workers of the country. They were visited by a representative from every political party, except the right-wing Nationalist MHP.8 The representative from the ruling Justice and Development Party [AKP]9 left many unimpressed (“Representatives of the AKP did not wish to speak into the microphone. This affected people’s impression and choices”). Other resisters note a shift in their political frame in the context of party politics since joining the resistance:

“My political views changed a lot. Before the resistance I voted for AKP, but during the organizing process they did not contribute to the struggle, and therefore I voted for a different party,” says a 25-year old woman.

“Speaking generally, this process has affected many of the worker’s political views…We have friends who supported AKP at the beginning before the resistance, but I believe their views changed,” says a 33-year old woman.

“The only power to solve the issue is the AKP – they could change the labour law, or other regulations. After the election a new era is starting, and now we will continue asking the AKP to solve the issue,” she continues.

The newly implemented presidential system has not yet influenced the code of labour, but the centralised organisation of powers, including greater control over the judiciary system following the President gaining the power of appointing the majority of the constitutional court, makes it harder for unions to access their rights through the court system.

Tensions between Class and Gender

In a general landscape in Turkey of disconnect between workers unions and feminist groups, the action and its supporters are permeated by ambiguities over the relationship between gender and class, and the intersection of patriarchy and neoliberalism. The resistance has been conceptualised as a ‘Woman’s resistance’ by some media outlets and supportive Women’s and LGBTI groups while the majority of those who are partaking in, and leading it, talk in class terms. While this confusion can be traced to rooted patriarchy within the trade union structure, Petrol-İş remains one of the few unions which has concerned itself with gender based discrimination and mobilisation of women’s groups, a development which was prompted in large part by the heavily female represented Novamed strike of 2007 - in the wake of that strike it established a separate budget for women, a gender training program and women’s committees in a few branches.

Among the Flormar resisters, the women have different experiences of any kind of employment, and different relationships to their womanhood, now undergoing new reformulations in these spaces of charged energy.

“What is important here is that the majority of us are women. The media are focusing on us as women and so we should use this platform as a way to increase our voice and increase the amount of interest,” says a woman in her mid-30s.

“We would like to show our strength to others as women. Being a woman gives us greater solidarity. This is important, because we’re able to find many common things.”

“This is not only a woman’s issue but the resistance process… Before the organization we were only sitting with our sisters in our departments. But now we sit all together, we feel the sisterhood is stronger.”

“When women come together in the workplace and struggle shoulder to shoulder against a role in society which has been designed by men, it’s one of the important points that this protest of women emerges from,” Mustafa Mesut Tekik, the Organizing and Educational Secretary of Petrol-İş, explains.

Some female resisters are elevating their identity as workers above their status of female workers. They are resisting their unfair dismissal after forming a legal trade union, their poor working conditions of long hours, static pay (“In ten years the employer raised our wages by 20TL”), no sick leave, overtime or night shift wage. That these things may be influenced by their gender, or have deeper repercussions as a result of their lives as women at home, are discussed by a few women - the intense intimidation policies directed at women, the greater tolerance of male worker demands, the distinctions between men and women in workplace dynamics of cleaning and work-breaks. But there remain confused delineations between class and gender.

“This is a class struggle. The women’s movement visited us, but I would like to underline that this is a class, not only women’s, struggle,” says President of Petrol-İş Gebze Branch, Süleyman Akyüz.

He goes on to acknowledge the necessity of forming coalitions between class-based and women’s-based groups. “In this resistance, the majority of the factory is women… We can compound the majority of struggles, women’s rights, workers etc. For instance, Petrol-Iş did not call for a boycott of Flormar products, but a voluntary boycott by the women’s groups was started after the picketing began.” The irony that young women are being exploited in the service of a market whose raison d’être is to enforce ideas of female beauty is not lost on Süleyman Akyüz. “Eighty percent of women are creating the projects; 100 per cent of women are using the products.”

Such a perspective of coalition tactics is reductive if it limits class to economic terms, without including gender and race as fundamental to its formation, and if it identifies ‘women’s based groups’ as cultural or social groupings, isolated from class realities. Class, or labour power, is mediated by social relational processes, informed by political and cultural structures, which impact on the ability to produce labour. For women in Turkey, these processes are multiple. In the first instance, work of any kind is the result of an insistent struggle for many of the Flormar resisters. Some of them were not in any form of employment until recently, others having to fight against fathers’ or husbands’ desires to remain out of work. More recently, since the ruling AKP’s 10th Development Plan for 2014-2018, which prioritised “flexible work options” and “supporting female entrepreneurship”, forms of employment such as part-time work, fixed-term contract work, temporary work through private employment agencies, or working from home have been encouraged. They go hand in hand with the institutional amalgamation of ‘Women’ with ‘Family’ (a shift in the ‘Woman’ subheading to ‘Women and Family’ under the “Qualified People, Strong Society” section of the 10th Plan) in the expectation that women’s primary purpose is to procreate, ideally three children, and devote herself to raising a family, and that employment should be a secondary concern. Flormar’s ideal cosmetics customer are such entrepreneurial women, according to their slogans, “Color for every you”, “Women can do anything they want”.

The Flormar women talk about the difficulties of raising children while working. There are no crèches at the factory, they have to pay for babysitters or friends to help out, their overtime hours are difficult for child-raising, the salary money is not enough. They talk of single-handedly caring, emotionally and financially, for elderly parents if they are unmarried; of exposure to greater risks walking along remote-roads alone at night. All are included in their jumbled array of motivations for joining the union, but a continued delineation of class from gender, a delineation embedded within largely patriarchal trade unions, still pervades the action. Although Petrol-İş has become increasingly committed to organizing women workers and improving their working conditions, this has yet to be understood in anti-patriarchal terms. The supportive actions carried out by gender based movements and LGBTI groups are encouraging but may be more effective if they are translated into practical actions such as workshops or trainings.

Concluding Comments

The past few weeks have witnessed insistent crackdowns on other worker actions in Turkey, including the detention of 543, and subsequent arrest of 24, workers protesting conditions of labour at the site of the third airport in Istanbul, reflecting continued repressive labour regime in Turkey.

The spontaneous dynamic of the Flormar resistance and the unfavourable political conditions in which it is occurring, and still continuing, makes it notable. The desire for a union is still reflected within, and channelled through, differing outlooks within the resisters. For women, it is not just about access to the union, it is also about the terms of that union and how it mediates their conditions of employment - the persistent ambiguities permeating class and gender discussions highlight that this still has a way to go. But nevertheless the resistance may yet have positive outcomes for solidarity building among gender based social movements.

The most important development to emerge may be the impact on the individual workers, their discovery of collective capacity and their awareness of common affinities which had been previously stifled by a spatially and logistically divided workplace. The wider scale repercussions, the likelihood of being able to draw the employer to the bargaining table in the current context and the effectiveness of international solidarity are unfortunately likely to remain limited. But the resistance, for solidarity building among its members, is a spark of beauty in an otherwise bleak landscape.



  1. Petrol-İş union covers all industries using fuel or chemicals. It’s a left-wing union which is among the few in Turkey to engage in a broader social struggle involving non-labour groups (Fougner, T. and Kurtoğlu, A. Transnational Labour Solidarity and Social Movement Unionism: Insights from and Beyond a Women Workers’ Strike in Turkey. British Journal of Industrial Relations, 49 (2011): 353-375). 

  2. The word ‘resisters’ rather than ‘strikers’ is used throughout this article to reflect the fact that this is not a legally defined ‘strike’, but rather workers protesting their right to form a trade union and therefore practice their right to strike. 

  3. Approximately £127 GBP or $165 USD. 

  4. Approximately £63 GBP or $83 USD. 

  5. See: Workers’ Inquiry and Social Composition in Notes from Below. 

  6. Approximately £5 / 2.50 GBP or $6.60 / 3.30 USD. 

  7. Bhattacharya, T, Introduction: Mapping Social Reproduction Theory. In Bhattacharya, T, Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression (Pluto Press: 2017). 

  8. Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi (MHP). 

  9. Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP) has been the ruling government of Turkey since 2002. It can be broadly defined as socially-conservative and has increasingly pursued Islamic oriented and broadly neoliberal politics, through controversial mega-construction projects, in its most recent years in power. 


author

Helen Mackreath

Helen Mackreath is a writer and researcher based in Istanbul.