2008-2009: Turkey: A Union is a Right - Not a Luxury
Brands: Prada, Mulberry, Louis Vuitton, Aspinals of London, Samsonite, Luella and Nicole Fahri (owned by French Connection)
In April 2008, hundreds of workers at DESA joined Deri Is, the Turkish leather workers union; 44 of them were subsequently dismissed, while another 55 were forced to resign from the union. Workers reacted by demonstrating outside the DESA factory in the Düzce Industrial Zone where they faced constant repression by local police. Many protesters were arrested.
Meanwhile, fed up with long hours, low wages and appalling conditions, Emine Arslan began actively recruiting new union members at the DESA factory in Sefaköy, where hundreds of workers were demonstrating against DESA.
DESA offered Arslan an 8,000 YTL (€4,000) bribe to cease her union activities. In October, DESA again approached her, offering her 30,000 YTL if she agreed to discontinue her activities, drop her case against DESA, and sign documents declaring she had not been fired for her unionising activities. When she refused, authorities began harassing her and her family, while her 11-year-old daughter narrowly escaped a kidnap attempt. After receiving three warnings in one day for union activities, she was fired. She continued her protests alongside other DESA employees.
DESA, with factories in Düzce and Sefaköy and a tanning facility in Çorlu, produces leather goods for numerous prestigious European and North American brands. It’s obvious that the high prices consumers pay for these luxury items do not end up in the workers’ pockets. They earn poverty (minimum) wages with Turkey’s minimum wage providing only 28 to 48% of a basic standard of living.
Employees work excessive hours with many of them forced to work 36-hour shifts. Some rack up 220 hours of overtime per month, just short of the annual total 270 hours of overtime allowed by Turkish labour law!
They suffer from various health issues related to poor working conditions including insufficient and unhygienic toilet facilities and a lack of clean drinking water. They complain of chronic back, waist, and foot pain; varicose veins; and breathing problems related to the use of dangerous chemicals in poorly ventilated spaces. DESA ignores health and safety regulations and responds to workers’ complaints with threats and intimidation.
The food that the factory provides is of such poor quality that many workers bring their own meals at their own expense. DESA fails to provide adequate day care facilities so that many mothers end up quitting to take care of their children.
DESA complains about a high turnover rate, but it’s no doubt related to atrocious working conditions. Many receive no health insurance and DESA doesn’t provide holiday, maternity or sick pay or permit leaves of absence for funerals, births or family illness. The independent Deri Is union serves as the “workers voice,” in addressing these issues.
DESA’s major clients were contacted long ago by the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers Federation (ITGLWF) and/or the CCC but none took sufficient action to ensure the legal rights of DESA’s employees.
In November 2008, the CCC and LabourStart issued an urgent appeal in support of Turkish leather workers, demanding the involved designer brands assume their responsibilities by pressuring DESA to improve working conditions and uphold the right to organise. The CCC also urged consumers to put pressure on these brands.
Court decides in favour of workers
In December, the courts upheld the CCC and LabourStart’s claims, deciding that Arslan and four other Duzce factory workers had been wrongly dismissed for union activities and recommended reinstatement or proper compensation. Turkish law, which does not meet the requirements of ILO conventions on freedom of association, allows companies to opt for compensating workers rather than reinstating them.
This precipitated meetings between Deri Is and DESA, with none of the brands attending. The meetings were considered constructive but failed to lead to the reinstatement of the dismissed workers. DESA appealed the court’s decision.
Brands fail to follow through
M&S called for meetings in December but failed to follow through. Meanwhile, Debenhams and Mulberry did hold meetings with the ITGLWF, but refused to speak to Desi Is and have avoided the issues since. Prada has refused to take any action while Aspinalls of London, Nicole Fahri and Luella have totally ignored all appeals.
Mulberry claims it chooses its suppliers based on audits that ensure “their high quality and ethical standards, which reflect Mulberry's own strict standards.” This clearly means only that Mulberry’s ethical standards are very different from the CCC’s, which includes a living wage, decent working conditions and freedom of association. So it appears that the audits, which never involve interviews with the actual employees, are less focused on solutions than public relations.
January 2009 meetings failed to yield concrete results and the CCC voiced concern that DESA was using the meetings to obstruct progress.
In late January 2009, the court decided that eight DESA workers had also been wrongly dismissed for their union activities. DESA steadfastly refused to reinstate Arslan and the others.
By February 2009, DESA had still not taken any decisive action to ensure the workers’ right to organise. The CCC recommended increased pressure on DESA and its clients. DESA continued its dismissals despite the court’s decisions, dismissing 30 workers, including four union members, as a result of the “economic crisis”.
The involved brands have neither responded satisfactorily to the CCC’s letters nor contacted either the ITGLWF or Deri Is. Prada has been particularly uncommunicative, insisting that audits turned up “no problems”. Both Nicole Fahri and Aspinals of London insisted they were doing their own investigations, but never followed up and eventually stopped responding to emails. The brands all claimed to be conducting audits as part of their “response” to the allegations but none of these audits contacted union members or other DESA employees.
CCC again targets brands
The CCC re-contacted the brands in early 2009, insisting that they demand that DESA provide written documents of meetings and progress reports of the negotiations and to participate in meetings involving Deri Is and DESA. Meanwhile, the ITGLWF, along with Spanish, Italian and UK unions, insisted they assume responsibility for resolving this case.
Deri Is comes to Europe
In early 2009, Prada, DESA’s biggest customer, among others, demanded that Turkish authorities reveal their evidence of violations. But even after the courts confirmed these violations, Prada and other brands continued to drag their feet. In March 2009, the CCC responded by bringing union organisers Emine Arslan and Nuran Gulenc to Europe to discuss the issues with government officials, trade unions and NGOs in Italy, France and Spain.
Upon their return to Turkey, stories appeared in Turkish media linking Deri Is to Ergenekon, an armed group responsible for numerous political assassinations. They accused Deri Is of destabilising the Turkish economy. Deri Is also became the victim of a harassment campaign involving hacking and break-ins.
In April 2009, the Turkish court reconfirmed that 25 workers had been illegally dismissed and demanded reinstatement. DESA decided to appeal the court’s decision. DESA presented no new evidence, however, indicating that the appeal was just another delay tactic; it is not uncommon to drag out disputes in the hope that workers will be forced to end their campaign due to economic hardship.
DESA continues its cat and mouse games
The CCC continued pressuring the brands to demand reinstatement of 44 dismissed union members. Other brands not targeted in the campaign – Spanish giant El Corte Ingles, Marks and Spencer (M&S) and Debenhams – were more responsive than the others but only El Corte Ingles agreed to meet with Desi Is and demanded that DESA negotiate with the union.
In May 2009, despite Supreme Court decisions in favour of the workers and Desi Is, DESA renewed its harassment campaign, including refusal to reinstate 18 employees, increased surveillance of union members and threats of dismissal for workers caught interacting with union members.
The CCC reiterated its demands that the brands insist that DESA respect freedom of association and reinstate the dismissed workers. In response, it seemed likely that DESA would pay out rather than reinstating union members. The workers never sought compensation; they just wanted their jobs back.
Meanwhile, DESA’s clients (except Prada) met at the ETI in London. However, the ITGLWF and CCC were not invited to the meeting, which led to a stalemate between DESA and Desi Is, producing nothing of substance.
In September 2009, the CCC announced a successful end to the year-long solidarity campaign in support of the dismissed workers from the DESA factory, with DESA and Deri Is signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) whereby DESA recognises Deri Is as the representative union; DESA will refrain from harassing its employees for joining the union; DESA agreed to reinstate six dismissed workers adding to six already reinstated. Other dismissed workers will be accorded priority in future DESA hiring efforts.
Another positive outcome: approximately half of DESA’s employees are now Desi Is members.
Paige Shipman, the CCC’s Urgent Appeals Coordinator, stated: “the dismissed workers fought a long hard fight to defend the right to freedom of association. We hope that this protocol will mark the beginning of a constructive relationship between the two parties and long-term respect for the human rights of workers.”
Deri Is agreed to end its international campaign and help DESA recoup its reputation. The CCC maintained contact with Deri Is to monitor implementation of the MoU. There was some hope of establishing a precedent here, although it was clear from the start that the MoU was only a beginning for winning workers rights because nothing concrete or lasting can happen until DESA changes its mindset and brands become more proactive.
A CCC delegation visited Turkey in December 2009. During meetings with DESA employees and Deri Is representatives it became clear that the MoU had already been breached in numerous ways: Deri Is members had not been reinstated; the draft guaranteeing the right to organise had not been distributed among workers; and repression and harassment of union members continued unabated.
In early 2010, the Istanbul Doctors Chambers, in recognition of her union contributions, awarded Emine Arslan, the prestigious Sevinc Ozguner Human Rights, Peace and Democracy Award for 2009.
In April 2010, the CCC recontacted the brands about the ongoing violations and urged them to work with DESA to end worker harassment and ensure implementation of the MoU. The few brands that did respond all claimed they’d visited the factory but noticed no violations. None, however, contacted any union members or reacted to CCC’s detailed requests for concrete action.
In June 2010, the CCC reopened its campaign against DESA for its ongoing harassment of workers including dismissals for union activities. The CCC called upon supporters to demand that DESA and sourcing brands seriously implement the MoU. That DESA management could continue these tactics with impunity are yet another indication of the deteriorating situation inside the factory.