Cablegate: Privatized Tobacco Workers Continue Angry Protests

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R 231454Z DEC 09




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1. (U) SUMMARY: Thousands of workers who face losing their
benefits and right to organize under Turkey's privatization
of its tobacco industry entered their ninth day of raucous
protest in Ankara December 23 while union leaders and the
government discuss ways to address their concerns.
Extraordinary measures by the GOT to give them the same
benefits as past public sector workers are unlikely.
Generating 12,000 newly unemployed workers in February 2011
-- half of them from the most economically depressed region
of the country -- is unlikely to bolster the AKP's prospects
in the 2011 elections. END SUMMARY.

2. (U) On December 15 over 100 buses from 21 provinces in
Turkey descended upon downtown Ankara, delivering large
numbers -- the media reported between 5,000 and 10,000 -- of
disgruntled employees of British American Tobacco (BAT) to a
shopping mall where they began an illegal protest for their
labor rights. The protesters walked from the mall to the
headquarters of the AKP, but were later moved from there by
riot police to Abdi Ipekci Park. They later continued their
protest in front of their labor confederation headquarters,
Turk-Is. During the protest, Turk-Is Confederation Secretary
General Mustafa Turkel and some other members of the
confederation were briefly detained. Media reports indicate
the police used water cannons and tear gas to control the
crowds, and occasionally there were physical confrontations.
According to one report, Ali Can Aykel, a member of the Mus
branch office of the Tekgida-Is union, was beaten so severely
by police that he faces possible paralysis and had to be
taken to the hospital.

3. (U) Eight unions affiliated with Turk-Is issued a joint
statement supporting the workers' work stoppage, denouncing
the Turk-Is detentions, and reiterating the demands of the
BAT workers. DISK (the Revolutionary Workers Unions
Confederation) also issued a statement expressing support,
while the International Union of Federations sent letters to
the GOT to express support. The MHP, CHP and DSP opposition
political parties also expressed support for the work
stoppage. Opposition CHP party MP Cetin Soysal, who
participated in the protests, was subdued by the tear gas
used by riot police. He later met with Parliament Speaker
Mehmet Ali Sahin, and complained that the workers should be
treated more respectfully. On December 23 he announced that
he will bring the excessive use of force by the police during
the protest before the Human Rights Commission in parliament.

4. (U) During a privatization in 2008, BAT purchased the
tobacco-producing facilities formerly owned by the state
monopoly TEKEL -- which had controlled production of tobacco,
alcohol and salt since the founding of the Turkish Republic
in 1923. In its initial tender, BAT made it clear that it
intended to continue production of only three brands of TEKEL
cigarettes, while closing 40 of the 42 production facilities
in operation and reducing the TEKEL workforce by around
12,000 employees. BAT offered the highest price for the
purchase and won the tender.

5. (U) In 2007, the ruling Justice and Development Party
(AKP) amended law Number 657 regarding civil servants to make
way for privatizations of several state-owned enterprises.
The amended Article 4.c. now says that people whose jobs are
eliminated due to privatization shall be given temporary
employment for less than a year. On February 1, 2010, when
BAT will formally take over operational control of the former
TEKEL facilities, the employees occupying positions to be
downsized will be able to choose: to either resign from their
positions, receiving severance pay and unemployment benefits,
or to continue to work under "temporary" status under Article
4.c. With this new "temporary" status, however, the
employees' pay will be cut significantly. Initial reports
are that their monthly pay will decrease from TL 1600 to TL
650 per month. When the temporary period ends, on or before
February 2011, if they are not offered a renewal of their
contract, their employment will end and they will not receive
any severance or unemployment benefits. In addition, because
their new category of work will be "temporary," they will not

ANKARA 00001829 002.2 OF 002

be allowed to unionize under Turkish law.

6. (U) Prior to the amendment of this law in 2007, when the
employees of the Petlas, Turban, Koy Hizmetleri, SEKA and
Orman Urunleri state enterprises were privatized, the GOT
took the employees who had been working in these enterprises
but whose services were no longer required and reassigned
them to other jobs in the government, where they could work
until their retirement. The BAT workers, through their
union, Tekgida-Is, are seeking this kind of arrangement: an
agreement from the government that they will be reassigned to
permanent government employment elsewhere, preserve their
current level of compensation, and retain the ability to
unionize as they currently enjoy.

Minimal Steps to a Resolution

7. (U) During the protests, Turk-Is President Mustafa Kumlu
has been meeting with GOT ministers to find a solution, but
no breakthrough has been announced. On December 22, PM
Erdogan said that two years ago the employees' transition was
discussed and their severance and notification fees were
paid. While Turkgida-Is requested the privatization be
postponed, Erdogan said "currently around 10,000 TEKEL
workers are receiving salaries without working, which costs
the Turkish Republic TL 40 trillion." Erdogan said the
Government is reexamining the 4.c. agreements with BAT for
salaries and contracts -- the length of which was initially
proposed to be 10 months, now being considered to be raised
to 11 months -- and that a decision should be made within a
week. He cautioned that any statements made during the
protests were speculative and that opposition party members
who were supporting the work stoppage were being insincere.
After the PM's statement, Turk-Is invited the members of 33
unions together to decide how to continue the protests.


8. (SBU) While the privatization of many industries in Turkey
is a fiscally sound decision for the bottom line of the GOT,
this one is occurring during a global economic downturn that
already has increased unemployment in Turkey to record
levels. The government's finances may improve in the long
run, but in the short term it will need to spend considerable
sums to address the needs of increasing numbers of Turks who
have no income. In addition, as outlined by the nine unions
that support the BAT workers, the majority of the facilities
that will cut employees are in southeastern provinces that
are already feeling the brunt of the economic downturn in
Turkey, and an influx of several thousand newly unemployed
workers will exacerbate an already grim situation there. The
GOT has said that it wants to target increased development in
this region as a part of its Democratic Opening (now known as
the "National Unity Project") and outreach to ethnic Kurds,
yet its privatization policy is undercutting that objective.
Large increases in regional unemployment in early 2011, if
left unaddressed, will dampen AKP's already slumping
electoral prospects in the southeast for the 2011 elections.

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