The City as Murderer: Fatal ‘‘Occupational Accidents’’ in the Context of Istanbul’s Urban Transformation


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The Vigil at the Park

The first Sunday of the Gezi Park Uprising and its following occupation coincided with the Vigil for Justice and Conscience of the Workers’ Families in Pursuit of Justice, a solidarity network of families and activists seeking justice for those workers who died while on duty. The temporary autonomous zone in the Park had been formed by the masses just one day earlier, on June 1, 2013, after almost a week long of struggle between the police and the multitude of protesters. Hence, a couple of days before their scheduled vigil, families and activists were not sure yet whether, during those days of turmoil, they could carry out their vigil in the usual place – as had previously been planned – in Galatasaray Square, just a half KM away from the park and Taksim Square.

Since May 16, 2012, the Families, together with the Support Group for Those in Pursuit of Justice, have continued to hold their Vigil for Conscience and Justice on the first Sunday of every month at 1 p.m. opposite Galatasaray High School. They hold their vigil to make their voices heard, to awaken the silenced conscience, to stop “labor murders,” and to make their legal struggles for justice visible. For the fulfillment of all these objectives, Galatasaray Square has been the appropriate public space, located right in the middle of the slightly more than one mile long pedestrianized Istiklal Street with more than two million passers-by on any given day. This is also the place where the renowned Saturday Mothers have been gathering at 12 p.m. every Saturday since 1995, to protest against the forced disappearances and political murders of their beloved ones during the military coup era of the 1980s and civil war era of the 1990s.

After the protesters had defeated the brutal riot cop and successfully occupied the Park, the Workers’ Families made their decision: the 19th Vigil would take place in the only remaining green space in the most densely populated center of Istanbul. Now Gezi had become something more than a park, a new urban common for Istanbulites, and a symbol of resistance for groups all around Turkey. ‘‘Being aware of the importance of keeping these public squares open to people like us trying to make their voice heard and struggling for justice, we moved our Vigil to Gezi from Galatasaray Square,’’ said Idris Cabuk on the spot, who lost his wife at the Davutpaşa Factory explosion in 2008, in which twenty-one workers were killed. One of the many cases that were mentioned during this vigil at “the potential shopping mall site” was the Marmara Park Shopping Mall massacre. In March 2012, eleven workers were killed when a fire broke out in their substandard dormitory tents on the Mall construction site, a 220-million-Euro investment by the Germany-based ECE Corporation in Esenyurt District of Istanbul, 30 kilometers from the Park.

Labor Murders

Turkey is the number one country in Europe for “labor murders,” the term preferred when referring to “fatal occupational accidents” due to the fact that almost all of these fatal incidents were preventable, if only occupational health and safety measures had properly been taken, work sites had been inspected by the authorities, and the ambition for profit were curbed to a “sane” level. Changing the language of killings from “accidents” to “murders,” which was made possible thanks to the vigils and the struggle of families and activists, was an important first step in the fight against the killing labor regime in Turkey. Since 2012, the Families and their Support Group have published the Almanac on Labor Murders, documenting every single recorded dead, as well as informing the public on the legal / social struggles, and on issues of occupational health and safety measures.

In Turkey, at least 1,886 workers lost their lives while working to earn their bread in 2014. Labor murders occur in almost every industry, however, some sectors, such as construction, are darker than others. For instance, in the same year at least forty-one construction workers died in the workplace in Istanbul, compared with only eight workers in New York.

From the City of Production to The Capital of Consumption

The former AKP government came to power in 2002 in the aftermath of one of Turkey’s worst financial crises. Since then, the government has made urban and rural interventions on a large scale to resolve the country’s capital surplus absorption problem. Today, after more than a decade, Turkish economic growth is heavily dependent upon the construction sector. Construction policies target both rural and urban areas by transforming the rural landscape with thousands of small and large-scale dam and mine projects and the urban landscape with mega urban investments, urban renewal projects, the construction of gated communities, and the creation of a shopping mall frenzy.

De-industrialization is one of the keywords defining the contemporary urban transformations of the city. In line with the changing economy, the future of sites of production, spaces of reproduction (of the working class), and the workers themselves, remain an important question. Istanbul’s economy, unlike many other global cities and wannabes, still heavily relies on industrial production, rather than/as compared with/as opposed to services or construction sector. Around 36% of the workforce are employed in the manufacturing industry as compared with 2.8% in London, for instance. Yet, urban transformations based on mega projects, real-estate speculation, and the services sector make the “industrial worker” an endangered species in the city. De-industrialization comes with the depopulation of the workers, replacing their production sites as well as their living spaces into the spaces of capital. On the other hand, the new economy based on construction creates a sort of gold rush to Istanbul’s urban and rural land. Rapid and unlimited access to the land and its development, being at the center of this economic model, relies on the labor of construction workers, yet ignores the welfare of those who literally build the city with their sweat and blood.

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The Mall Massacre

On Sunday evening, March 11, 2012, at around 10 p.m., eleven workers were killed when a fire broke out in three substandard dormitory tents on the construction site of the Marmara Park Shopping Mall. These were workers who had come to Istanbul from every part of Turkey to toil for as many as fifteen hours a day and earn only a minimum wage. The owner of the construction site was ECE Turkey, an affiliated corporation of the Hamburg-based ECE company, a European market leader in the field of inner-city shopping malls which manages assets for around 28 billion Euros. ECE Turkey contracted Turkish company Kayi Insaat and sub-contracted Kaldem Yapi for the 220-million-Euro investment, in a partnership with Deutsche Bank’s investment firm DWS, Finansbank (Greece) and Is GYO (Turkey). Three years of legal struggle involving the Families and their Support Group to make sure those in charge were held responsible for the murders was only partially successful. At the end of the criminal case, the court found the lowest level sub-contractors guilty. The transnational corporation, capitalizing on Turkey’s “liberal” construction, cheap labor, and lack of regulation in and control over occupational health and safety measures, was acquitted of liability for the massacre of eleven workers.

The City as Murderer

The construction frenzy does not just dispose the urban poor, enclose public spaces, and endanger the fragile urban ecology; it also claims the lives of the workers. Within this framework of accumulation by dispossession and exploitation, the workers’ blood is dripping from Istanbul’s glossy towers, malls and mega projects. One of the lowest points in humanity is the death of workers trying to make a living due to exploitative, unsafe working conditions—especially deaths that occur during the construction of those spaces of capital, such as Marmara Park Shopping Mall, that will exclude the workers as soon as the need for their labor vanishes.

* This article was first published at the MAXXI– National Museum of XXI Century Arts’s exhibition catalogue of Istanbul. Passion, Joy, Fury. 
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