Turkey Marks International Workers Memorial Day  

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



They say that the population of Istanbul is around 13.5 million. If I didn't know better I could have sworn that all of them were milling around in central Istanbul last Sunday morning, April 28. This is not as far-fetched as it sounds as it has been reported that on a single Saturday or Sunday up to 3 million people have been known to frequent Istiklal Avenue (Independence Avenue) one of the most famous boulevards in Istanbul and a pedestrianized space much used for parades, demonstrations and gatherings.

On Sunday, I saw all sorts of folks sauntering down the road including children in brightly colored peasant costumes, moustachioed young men dressed as old-time Turkish soldiers and ladies sporting beautifully embroidered dressed and sparkly scarves. They were promoting neighbourhood associations, regional produce and commercial products with banners, floats and megaphones in a series of processions accompanied by music both taped and live. For them, it was a day out; a pleasant way to spend a sunny weekend morning. For other people on Istiklal Avenue that day, it was deadly serious. These were the members of an association representing the families of people killed at work, called “Don't Forget the Workplace Murders.” Wives and daughters, husbands and fathers, sons and brothers from Istanbul and Ankara who had left home one morning and never returned. The people marching behind the banners and under the placards were remembering factory workers, miners, journalists and TV technicians; the faces held aloft by the marchers were of smiling and much-loved individuals.


We advanced slowly down Istiklal Avenue accompanied by slogans demanding justice for the victims. “There are,” said one speaker “no fatal accidents at work. These deaths are not accidents, they are murder.” This refrain was repeated with different words by different people but the meaning was the same. Upon arrival at the destination of the rally, chairs were set out, umbrellas were distributed (for protection from the sun not the rain), and hard hats were arranged in rows on the pavement. The smoothness of the arrangements reinforced the fact that this was the 18th demonstration the association had held since last summer (2012), initially weekly then monthly on the last Sunday of the month. The designated place for these rallies was a space in front of the high gates of the Lycee Franšais d'Istanbul, a French High School dating from Ottoman Times.


The fact that the last Sunday in April 2013 was International Workers Memorial Day, an occasion not recognized by the Turkish Government, was significant. Calls were made by speakers for the Government to show solidarity with Turkish and international labor and embrace this as a national day of remembrance. It was heart-breaking to hear the interventions by family members. One man spoke about the workplace death of his wife in a workshop explosion in Istanbul in 2008; she left behind two small children.


Grieving mothers were in tears remembering their beloved sons and one sister remembered her brother, a journalist who died in the Van earthquake in October 2011 while on assignment for his newspaper.


Speaker Laurie Kazan-Allen, Translator Asli Odman.

As the Coordinator of the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat, I was privileged to address the gathering. Bringing greetings of solidarity from British colleagues, I said:

“Throughout the United Kingdom, people are demonstrating today to mark International Workers Memorial Day. Last year, we lost 4,000 people to asbestos-related diseases. Our deaths are just the tip of the iceberg – around the world people will continue to die from asbestos for decades to come. On April 28, we remember the dead but we fight for the living; to save future generations from asbestos, we campaign for a global ban.”

As successive processions made their way down Istiklal Avenue behind us it was not always easy for the speakers to be heard. But they persevered and we listened; what they had to say was too important to miss. The photos which featured so prominently in the street scene in front of us were a reminder of the price paid by Turkish workers for the callous negligence of their employers.

As part of the ongoing mobilization on occupational health and safety by Turkish activists, a workshop had been organized that afternoon by the Istanbul Health and Safety Labour Watch (named Fire Tower) and hosted by the Istanbul branch of the Turkish Medical Association. This was the first public meeting on asbestos to take place in Istanbul and was attended by groups representing family associations, labor networks, trade unions, non-governmental organizations and members of the press.


Asli Odman.

In her opening comments Asli Odman from Istanbul Health and Safety Labour Watch (Fire Tower),1 a group founded in 2011 by academics, physicians, engineers, journalists, trade unionists, labor rights activists, relatives of workplace victims and campaigners for occupational health and job security, said that while a few work-related fatalities were recorded in Turkey, there were no government data on the incidence of occupational diseases. It is believed that for every workplace fatality there are, at least, four times as many caused by occupational diseases. According to government sources, there were 1500 workplace fatalities in 2011. However, there are no statistics on the incidence of occupational or asbestos cancer and no register of asbestos victims in Turkey. No one knows where asbestos products have been used or where asbestos waste has been dumped. With government plans to demolish 6 million+ buildings as part of an urban renewal project in the next 20 years, locating asbestos contamination within the built environment is of paramount concern. It is also highly likely that asbestos-cement water pipes are still being used by many municipalities as there was a mass purchase of these products by the Municipal Bank decades ago.


From left: Translator Çiğdem Çıdamlı and Laurie Kazan-Allen

In my presentation Asbestos: From Magic Mineral to Killer Dust, I discussed the three waves of disease caused by asbestos exposure:

Wave 1: Asbestos miners, millers and factory workers;

Wave 2: Occupational asbestos users e.g. shipyard insulators, construction workers;

Wave 3: People exposed to asbestos products in situ e.g. schoolteachers, nurses, factory inspectors.

Accompanying each phase of the asbestos epidemic were victims of bystander exposure, such as shipyard workers exposed to asbestos being used by insulators, wives who washed their husbands' asbestos-covered work clothes or people who lived near asbestos mines or factories. In Australia, campaigners are anticipating two more waves of disease amongst home renovators working on asbestos-contaminated properties and people in the asbestos removal industry. To personalize the global humanitarian disaster, a series of photographs of workers and members of the public whose lives had been sacrificed to asbestos was shown.

According to data from the United States Geological Survey, approximately one million tonnes of asbestos were used in Turkey between 1940 and 2010, when asbestos use was banned. As there are no asbestos audits or records of where asbestos was used, remediation work on aging buildings and the wholesale demolition proposed by the government of millions of buildings, many of which contain asbestos, have the potential to create a serious public health hazard. Online research undertaken in Istanbul revealed that only two asbestos removal companies exist in Turkey: one of them is a subsidiary of a Dutch company, the other has only listed its name and three photos on its Facebook page. Even if asbestos were removed according to state-of-the-art procedures, there are no regulated dump sites in Turkey for the disposal of asbestos waste.

Professor Dr. Ibrahim Akkurt, a chest physician from Cumhuriyet University in the city of Sivas, discussed the subject of asbestos within a presentation on the country's occupational health regime. Changes in Turkey's health system since 2005 have reduced medical capacity to diagnose patients with occupationally-related diseases. Turkish doctors do not ask patients for details of their occupational histories which lessens the likelihood that illnesses are recognized as work-related. Environmental exposure to natural deposits of asbestos interacts with occupational exposure to increase the risk of asbestosis and lung function impairment in at-risk workers.2 To supplement the information on asbestos provided by the speakers, a four-page asbestos factsheet was distributed which covered issues including: where asbestos is used, who is at risk, the economic costs of asbestos-related diseases, the availability of safer materials, the need for a global ban and UN measures to minimize the asbestos hazard. At the end of this session, Dr. Akkurt was presented with an award given in the name of the esteemed Turkish physician Nejat Yazıcıoğlu; the work of Dr. Mehmet Çelikiz from the Occupational Diseases Hospital in the Mining Province of Zonguldak was also recognized.

The meeting resumed after a short coffee break with an open forum which provided the opportunity for speakers to present information on a variety of subjects including the complexities of the legal system, syndromes and symptoms experienced by workers in call centers and the importance of visualizing the national epidemic of work-related diseases and deaths. To this end, an Almanac had been compiled by the Victims' Families Network Support Group “Bir Umut,” with pictures, news and case studies related to occupational deaths throughout 2012.


Three Almanac contributors and Laurie Kazan-Allen.

As the meeting drew to an end, I felt confident that the fight for asbestos justice in Turkey had begun. I will remember April 28, 2013: the faces of the families, the energy of their campaign, and the sincerity of the young activists. I am very proud that I was in Istanbul to witness the birth of the campaign for asbestos justice in Turkey. Perhaps on April 28, 2014 we will see the launch of a new association: The Turkish Asbestos Victims Support Group. Watch this space!

May 2, 2013


1 Fire Tower's core activity is the campaign on behalf of people killed at work.

2 Akkurt I, et al. Respiratory health in Turkish asbestos cement workers: The role of environmental exposure. Am. J. Ind. Med., 49: 609-616.



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