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12 Dec 2023

Jasmin Malik Chua, Rivet,
Frankfurter Rundschau

Türkiye: 470 textile workers strike outside factory demanding right to form own union after withdrawing from 'yellow union', workers report threats & intimidation

See all tags Allegations

"Workers at Turkish Levi's supplier fight for union choice", 12 December 2023

For the past two weeks, some 470 employees at Özak Tekstil, one of Turkey’s largest apparel manufacturers, have been striking outside their factory in Urfa, the capital of Şanlıurfa Province. Chief among their demands: the right to choose their own union.

It was roughly two months ago when employees at the Levi Strauss & Co. supplier began withdrawing from the factory-approved union, Öz İplik-İş, and signing up with Birtek-Sen...The former, defectors say, is a “yellow” union that has failed to address their complaints, which include rampant harassment and violence directed at women. After making the switch, however, many say that they have faced threats and intimidation by management to resign from Birtek-Sen.

“Ulfa is a very conservative city,” Özlem Temena, a representative from Birtek-Sen, told Sourcing Journal. “Özak managers told one woman that if she stayed at Birtek-Sen, they would tell her family that she has a boyfriend. This is very dangerous, especially in Ulfa, where the murder rate of women [in so-called ‘honor killings’] is so high.”...

Law enforcement officers, known as the gendarmerie, have erected barricades outside the factory that prevent strikers from using the restroom or visiting a nearby mosque for prayers. “We are literally trapped here,” one worker said. “We are being subjected to collective torture.” Security forces, demonstrators say, have also attacked them with water cannons, pepper spray, riot shields and batons. Since the strikes began on Nov. 27, 20 people, many of them members of Birtek-Sen, have been arrested, Temena said. Another 40 have lost their jobs...

Özak Tekstil did not respond to an email seeking comment. While Öz İplik-İş did not immediately reply to a request for comment, a representative for the IndustriALL Global Union affiliate refuted Birtek-Sen’s allegations following the article’s publication.

“It is absolutely unacceptable for this union [to attack] our union, targeting and pushing brands to [cut] commercial relations with Özak Tekstil, which is one of the very few workplaces in Turkey where we were able to successfully organize which recognizes workers’ rights and has signed successful collective bargaining agreements with high gains for three periods after a process that progresses with devotion and respect,” said Pinar Özcan, who noted that Birtek-Sen does not have the sufficient majority to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement.

Workers say they will stop protesting if three of their demands are met: That their sacked colleagues are reinstated, that they’re able to freely participate in Birtek-Sen, and that Levi’s, the factory’s sole buyer, listen “not to the factory, but to workers’ voices,” Temena said...

Levi’s said that it takes any allegations of efforts to curtail freedom of association “extremely seriously.” “We have a longstanding commitment to supporting safe, productive workplaces for workers,” a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal. “We are looking into the issue on the ground and will conduct a thorough investigation.”...

Levi’s writes that it respects workers’ rights to form and join organizations of their choice and to bargain collectively. It also expects its suppliers to respect the right to free association and the right to organize and bargain collectively without unlawful interference.

Temena said that workers want Özak Tekstil...to continue negotiations with their elected union, which is to say, Birtek-Sen..

But Özcan said that it was actually Birtek-Sen that threatened employees, forcing them to stop work and “causing chaos.” She said that Öz İplik-İş has spoken to Özak Tekstil to demand that it take precautions to ensure the safety of both its members and non-union workers...

Özcan said that it is “absolutely not acceptable” to “attack” Özak Tekstil and say that it doesn‘t respect freedom of association when it is among the 2 percent of Turkey’s garment industry that has signed a collective bargaining agreement.

“It is absolutely unacceptable to try to attach a yellow union label to our union that has been carrying out an honorable labor struggle as a member of the Industriall Global Union and Industriall European Union almost since its establishment,” she added...