Secret Turkish government documents reveal how the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan unlawfully profiled members of an opposition union and helped pursue the criminal prosecution of the leaders and members of the union.
The documents, stamped “secret” and obtained by Nordic Monitor, show the Ministry of Labor and Social Security shared membership data for the union members with partisan courts that are pursuing a witch-hunt against critics and opponents of President Erdoğan under political directives.
The individuals targeted were members of the Aksiyon-İş union, which was established in the field of education but quickly expanded to include other sectors, becoming a confederation of unions under the umbrella of Cihan-Sen. Hoping to eliminate rivals to pro-government unions, Erdoğan moved to label the union as a “terrorist group” and shut it down by executive order using powers granted by a state of emergency in 2016. All the administrators as well as its members were subsequently targeted for unprecedented prosecution in Turkey’s abusive criminal justice system.
The Cihan-Sen confederation had 22,104 members in July 2016, according to government data. A total of 18,015 of these members were under the roof of Aktif-Sen, another union in the confederation. Today, all of these members are at risk of being charged with membership in a terrorist organization. For example, thousands of teachers have already been arrested and face prosecution just because they were members of the Aksiyon-İş union.
The document shows how the courts hearing the trial of union members cooperated with Labor Ministry in identifying people who might have had membership in the union in the past. The information provided by the ministry was added as evidence of terrorism against suspected union members.
In a document dated May 2, 2018 and signed by Nurcan Önder, director general at the Ministry of Labor acting on behalf of Labor Minister Zehra Zümrüt Selçuk, was sent to the Istanbul 33rd High Criminal Court, the ministry admitted that union members had duly registered to become members of their union of choice under Law No. 6356, which deals with unions and collective bargaining. Each member applied for union membership using their unique ID numbers through government portal e-devlet and became a member after approval by the union administration in line with union bylaws.
The three-page document listed the names of 29 Turkish nationals who belonged to various unions in a number of industry sectors that were deemed critical of the government. The list details the date workers applied for membership and the date they were accepted by the union organizations. It covers the years 2014 through 2016, and the reason for the cancellation of membership was listed as the government’s closure of the unions. Nordic Monitor redacted the personal ID numbers in the documents for reasons of privacy.
After the corruption and bribery investigations of Dec. 17/25, 2013 that incriminated Erdoğan, his family members and business and political associates, the critical media, NGOs, academia and opposition unions came under increased pressure from the government. Using a controversial coup bid as a pretext, the Erdoğan government shut down 19 unions, federations and confederations along with some 180 media outlets and 1,229 foundations and associations under decree-law No. 667. Their assets were confiscated as well.
The Ministry of Labor and Social Security was previously criticized for profiling over 100,000 dismissed government employees and registering them in the Social Security System (SSK) with a special code indicating that they had been purged on accusations of alleged terrorism. Private employers are alerted by the code when they try to register new hires with the ministry-run SSK. The alert often leads to the withdrawal of employment contracts by companies that do not want to get into trouble with the authorities. In fact, this unlawful tagging was exposed by main opposition lawmaker Ceyhun Irgil, who stated that a government circular issued by the Ministry of Labor and Social Security on Aug. 2, 2016 added the code number “36” to those individuals who were dismissed from state jobs, resulting in their inability to find work in the private sector.
The government declined to respond to the parliamentary question from Irgil even though the bylaws require that the government answer such questions within 15 days. The Erdoğan government also remained unresponsive to similar questions from other lawmakers. When employment has been terminated by a decree having the force of law, the dismissed employee is unable to challenge the decision in a court of law and cannot file a lawsuit for reinstatement to his or her employment. This constitutes a violation of Article 8 of the International Labour Organization’s Termination of Employment Convention, 1982 (No. 158), which clearly states that “an employee whose job is unjustly terminated by an employer has the right to appeal to an impartial authority such as a court, labor court, arbitration committee or arbitrator.”
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) as well as the the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which protect the right to non-discrimination, were violated by the Turkish government when they dismissed public employees in large numbers just because they were believed to be affiliated with a civic group such as the Gülen movement. In 2016 the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) found Turkey in breach of Article 14, which bans discrimination.
The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) guaranteeing the right to work and provisions of ILO No. 158 that protect against termination of employment by arbitrary dismissal without due process were also violated by Turkey. The government dismissed tens of thousands of people without even bothering to seek their defense in the face of allegations of “terrorism” and as such violated Article 7 of ILO No. 158, which states that “the employment of a worker shall not be terminated for reasons related to the worker’s conduct or performance before he is provided an opportunity to defend himself against the allegations made, unless the employer cannot reasonably be expected to provide this opportunity.”
Furthermore, Turkey is also in breach of Article 5 of ILO No. 158, which states that “union membership” and “political opinion” cannot constitute valid reasons for termination from a job. The dismissals and arrests of educators, for example, have been made on the basis of their membership in the Aktif-Sen union, which was critical of the government. Aktif was a duly established union that was operating legally in Turkey until the purge. In fact, the Ministry of Education had previously sent an official letter to 26 governor’s offices and provincial education directorates advising them to freely promote Aktif membership.
Yet, when the government shut down Aktif along with other unions in the aftermath of the failed coup, membership in Aktif was retroactively considered to be evidence of terrorism.
The ministry’s secret document lays bare the unlawful profiling that amounted to violations of Turkey’s obligations and commitments under international agreements.