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The Ethnic Composition of the Turkish Working Class

A note from the editors of LeftEast: This is the third article on Turkey we have published over the last two weeks. With this series, we wish to introduce our readers to the dynamics of Turkish society beyond the Gezi protests and to expand our traditional geographical coverage to other zones of peripheral capitalism.

aybike alkanTo understand the ethnic composition of the working class in Turkey, we must first look at Turkey’s relationship with the ethnic minorities within its borders. This article will examine this relationship for the period starting from the foundation of Turkish Republic in 1923. The Turkish nation state was formed from the ruins of the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire and contained within its borders large populations that did not consider themselves part of the Turkish nationality. Owing to its pervasive sense of insecurity, the state took a hard line against every threat or perception of “threat.” Therefore, the shape of ethnic conflicts surrounding social, economic and political life was mostly formed in the early years of the Republic. In order to appreciate the level of Turkey’s disregard for other nationalities we only need to recall the words of the Justice Minister of the time: “Turks are the only master and the owner of this country. The ones who do not have pure Turkish origins have only one right: the right of being servant, the right of being slave of the Turks. Friend or foe, even the mountains must know this truth.”

The birth of a new Turkish nation called for a homogenized population, which in turn led to the deportation of non-Muslims from Anatolia and the elimination of diversity among Muslims. The main political strategies used by the state to achieve homogenization included the assimilation of non-Turks into Turkish culture, efforts to facilitate population transfers such as resettlement laws and military administration as a tool of employment of these strategies. According to “Şark Seyahat Raporu” (1935), a report prepared by İsmet İnönü, prime minister of Turkey, the Kurds, who were the biggest percentage of the population of ethnic minorities, were identified as a threat. As a result, the Kurdish language was banned, Armenians and Kurdish people, who populated the east of the country, were forced to migrate west and ethnic Turks were settled in their place. These reforms not only legitimized the formal military power but also authorized the formation of paramilitary groups. It can thus be said that the Turkish Republic, which embarked on a project of nation-building using Turkish cement, perceived ethnic differences in the country as a primary danger. And like every nation-state, it created its own minority, and it achieved this with the consent of a large part of the Turkish public.

Since the early Republic, the Turkish ruling class has been constructing a hegemony  based on a nationalist consensus introduced through educational pressures. Indeed, education was the most frequently used tactic to assimilate Kurds. After the 1980 coup, however, hegemony gave way to outright coercion, which accelerated the conflict between and the Turkish state and its Kurdish minority, transforming the state dynamics in Turkey profoundly. The Turkish military became involved in the political and economic sphere in an effort to reinforce the nationalist public will. In this period, the military and major industrialists improved their relationship, with the defense industry in particular serving as a major source of enrichment of both.

The post-coup period also shifted the country to a new economic system, which would perpetuate the injustice towards ethnic minorities on two different grounds: political and economic. A wave of arrests followed the declaration of martial law in 1979, with torture under custody becoming more systematized after the 1980 coup. At the time, the leader of the military junta, Kenan Evren, claimed that “There is no such nation as the Kurds, they are just Turks on the mountains. When they are walking on snow in the mountains, they make a noise like ‘kart, kurt’ and this is where the work Kurd comes from.” This process of denial was followed by acts of violence against Kurdish intelligentsia in the Diyarbakır prison, which operated under a military administration during the so-called “period of barbarity”. Newspapers of the time compared prisons to boarding schools whose aim was to teach Turkish history, the Turkish national anthem, Ataturk’s principles and reforms to Kurds, some of whom didn’t even know Turkish! Through the elimination of the Kurdish intelligentsia in “the hell of Diyarbakir,” the Turkish state sought to close down the channels for Kurdish efforts at organizing a counter-hegemonic movement. However, the vastly increased levels of political violence following the coup paved the way for a militant resistance movement of Kurds. In 1984 the PKK (Partiya Kerkeran Kurdistan – the Kurdistan Workers’ Party), which was a Marxist-Leninist Kurdish party formed in the 1970s, undertook its first act of violence against the Turkish state.

The demobilization of the working class and the general atomization of society produced through the oppressive measures of the military junta offered the perfect opportunity to carry the economy into the neoliberal era, which would make the Turkish working class increasingly Kurdish in its composition. In the post-coup decade, investments in the health and education sectors were stopped; by abolishing the government controls on every price tag, market price mechanisms were applied to all spheres of the economy; the Turkish economy became increasingly export-oriented and integrated with the rest of the world market; finally, the ensuing labor demand was met by informal mechanisms such as contract labor. Subcontracting, which decreases expenditures for labor by reducing the investment for work security, also reduced any possible worker resistance by accelerating competition between workers and by reinforcing labor networks along family and ethnic ties. During this period of attacks on the working class, the whole country was affected but the most painful consequences were felt in the east. Looking at Turkey’s gross national product region by region during the 1980s, we see how Kurdish cities, which had been within the mid-ranks in 1979, started to hit bottom by the mid-1980s (Sönmez, 1990, Toplum ve Kuram). The drop was caused by the effects of the new economic policies, which destroyed the traditional livelihoods of people in the eastern region, resulting in the forced migration of Kurdish people to the west. Particularly bad for the economy of the Kurdish regions were the end of agricultural subsidies and the policy of steering the livestock economy towards meat exports. After the implementation of these new economic policies, Kurdish elites maintained their economic power but scarcity of production rendered the other residents of the region helpless.

Kurdish migration was not enforced merely by economic channels; political conflicts also triggered the atrocious conditions inflicted on the Kurdish provinces. As a military strategy, plateaus and pasturages were evacuated, dealing a further blow to the livestock industry. A great number of villages that rejected the system of “village guarding,” that is, forming anti-PKK paramilitary groups with the support of Turkish state, were burned and evacuated so as to deprive PKK of a habitat to fight and find new members, food and shelter. Such “strategies” resulted in a large numbers of workless, homeless people, most of whom couldn’t even manage to rescue their personal belongings. The Turkish government, recognizing the reality of economic collapse in the eastern regions, blamed the underdevelopment on the PKK. It was because of their destabilizing role in the area, they claimed, that economic growth had been slowed even if the impoverishment of the region, however, was the subject of political debate well before the acts of violence.

Thus triggered, Kurdish urbanization could have given new blood to new social movements in large cities but legal restrictions to organizing did not let this happen. Instead, it produced a vicious circle of ethnic segmentation of the Turkish working class, which employers exploited to erode whatever power and security that workers still had, which in turn helped fuel Kurdish urban migration. This was a migration of a large and poor informal work force to the western Turkish metropolises. When the first village was evacuated and the residents of that village came to an agricultural zone in Adana (a city in southern Turkey), for example, the local wage level dropped by half. What was worse was that the Kurds could not get even that wage; they were employed at less than the half of the new wage level. The drop in wages caused by the ruthless exploitation of these Kurdish migrants fueled the ethnic hatred of Turks. In addition, Kurds were taking part in a market economy deprived of work security in the areas of informal manufacturing and trade and got the most labor intensive jobs.

The case of the Tuzla Industrial Area offers another example of how the migration of Kurds and the ethnicization of the Turkish workforce has offered new opportunities for their exploitation. Tuzla is for a major center for Turkish shipbuilding and famous for its dangerous labor conditions; in the absence of workplace safety laws, a hundred and fifty workers have lost their lives since 1985. Working conditions became worse and deaths increased following the International Maritime Organization’s decision to build standardized ships in 2005. Whenever workers attempted to protest these conditions, the employers exploited the ethnic differences between the Tuzla workers. As the Tuzla Research Group’s report (Tuzla Araştırma Grubu 2009) reveals, every demand for justice on the site was suppressed by employers’ ethnicizing the conflict and presenting labor protests as an extension of PKK activity.

As a result of the vicious circle fueling their urban migration, Kurds came up against the brick wall of a public consensus of hatred. In this way, Turkish employers have been able to kill two birds with one stone: first, to exploit a newly displaced, cheap workforce of migrants from the eastern regions and, second, to prevent solidarity among the Turkish working class by introducing ethnic division into its ranks. Kurdish workers were criminalized as terrorists and isolated from other workers. Since the informal employment mechanisms increased competition, ethnic diversity was exploited as a competition strategy by ethnically Turkish workers who were afraid to stand up for their rights to avoid being labeled  terrorists. Thus in its struggle with the PKK, the Turkish ruling class was able to construct a new hegemony based on dividing Turkish workers from their Kurdish counterparts and linking every working class demand for justice to the militant Kurdish movement. This manipulation has also been a formidable barrier before the Turkish left. Much of it has remained blind to the ethnic transformation of the working class by dismissing the Kurdish struggle as a cultural rights issue. Economist class politics failed to pay attention to the reasons why Kurds settled on the bottom of the work hierarchy. This issue concerns much more than relations of production and economic conditions; reducing social movements based on ethnic identities to purely class problems will be a stumbling block before any future working-class movement.

Something has to be changed to break the vicious circle in which ethnic hatred and inequality reproduce each other. At this point, it is the task of both the Turkish and Kurdish left to think about what they have been doing wrong. Class is not a homogenous formation, but heterogeneity should not lead to divisions. To achieve class solidarity, economic demands and cultural demands should be considered together. Excluding one of them will only aid capitalism and its supporters.

Aybike Alkan is an MA student in industrial engineering at Koç University.   




Tuzla Araştırma Grubu.(2009). Türkiye’de Neo-liberalizm, Kürt Meselesi ve Tuzla Tersaneler Bölgesi. Toplum ve Kuram, Kitap dizisi. İstanbul.

Yörük, E. (2012). Welfare Provision as Political Containment The Politics of Social Assistance and the Kurdish Conflict in Turkey. Politics & Society, 40(4), 517-547.

Koç, F. (2010). Tekel Direnişinin Işığında Gelenekselden Yeniye İşçi Sınıfı Hareketi. Nota Bene Publishing. İstanbul.

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(S. S. Onder, personal communication, June 4, 2011) Retrieved January 14, 2014, from