by Sanem Oztürk (Turkey)

The present text, which we co-publish together with LevFem and Lefteast, is part of a series of publications on the topics of social reproduction, (women’s) labour and migration in East-Central Europe and beyond. Sanem, an activist from Turkey engaged in migrants and women’s struggles and part of the E.A.S.T. network, discusses the increase, with the pandemic, of women’s social reproductive labor inside and outside home, combined with rising unemployment, and a deterioration of living and working conditions for migrants and refugees in Turkey. While women’s essential labour became more visible after Covid-19, women have been asked for longer shifts and heavier workloads in unsafe conditions, but at the same time they have been left with no or insufficient subsidies, because mostly employed in informal sectors, and often with no job at all. In addition, migrants and refugees, often undocumented, were left with no health care and had to face even harsher labour conditions, because of the murderous institutional racism of Turkish government and EU institutions which makes them a more disposable workforce. While some mobilizations helped to put pressures on the institutions to recognize health care access, and other forms of autonomous initiatives have been able to give some relief to migrants, it is clear that women and migrants cannot wait for nor rely on institutional measures or small-scale support. Even more so in the light of the government’s attacks on Istanbul convention and the proposed amnesty for girls’ abusers, which demonstrate the will to put women at their place and re-establish social hierarchies, especially after the massive women’s mobilizations of these years, such as the one which took place last 25th November. To elaborate common transnational strategies against the intertwinement of racism, exploitation and patriarchal violence, to elaborate common demands and to organize an essential strike that allows to accumulate force in order to claim our terms for the reconstruction: these are the urgent challenges for women, migrants and workers which EAST will discuss in the next months, starting from the publication of a Manifesto of the essential strike towards the 8th of March and beyond. 


We had already been feeling as if in a dystopian movie, when the Covid-19 pandemic exposed even more of the social and economic injustice and the collapse of neoliberal health care systems. In this talk, I will especially try to focus more on women’s social reproductive labor inside and outside home, unemployment, especially female unemployment and the general situation for migrants and refugees in Turkey after Covid-19 crisis.

No need to mention that women perform most of the social reproductive work, inside or outside the home; paid or unpaid; it’s a global fact that also holds true for Turkey. What has changed in the field of social reproduction after COVID-19? Certainly, women’s unpaid reproductive work inside the home has become heavier. It was already too much; however, according to the most recent research on women’s and men’s share in domestic labor, women spend four times as much time than men for house and care work, which increased unprecedentedly with the isolation conditions. Despite the fact that men’s share in domestic labor increased after Covid pandemic, the numbers show no sign for a more equal share of social reproductive work inside the household.

The situation for those who perform social reproductive work outside the home is inevitably getting heavier as well. Especially health, education, food and retail sectors are the ones where women are really high in number. Here, I really need to underline two important consequences of this situation. On one hand, the top critical sectors in COVID crisis are also the sectors where the labor force is forced to work overtime, unpaid, insane hours, under inhumane conditions, under the threat of losing job (because why not? There’s an army of unemployed out there). We have seen the cases that people started work without proper training, proper cleaning and protection supplies. Women’s workload is doubled, even tripled.

But on the other hand, the real importance of social reproductive labor became much clearer as if we woke up in the morning and suddenly cleaning services, distribution services, care takers, nurses, teachers, social workers gained extra visibility. In a crisis where so many sectors had to shut down or slowed down and only the critical sectors are working in full capacity, women’s importance in the total workforce became quite visible. In other words, it became clear that women labor is mostly located in the most critical sectors that we all depend on not only during crisis but every single day, especially in a country where women’s participation in the total labor force is low, around 35%.

Losing job is a risk for all during the pandemic, especially for the people working in the non-critical sectors. In Turkey, we already have a really high rate of unemployment, which was around 24 % before the pandemic but it is expected to reach a very critical point unless the necessary precautions were taken by the government. However, the numbers released by the official statistics institution do not seem to reflect the reality according to the worker unions’ confederation (DİSK). According to the July 2020 unemployment report of DİSK, between April 2019 and April 2020, male employment decreased 7% and female employment decreased 13.9%. The government was forced by the unions to take a measure to prevent private sector companies fire people during pandemic. However, this measure was taken very late; and it had loopholes, especially in a country where so many people work informally and does not prevent forced unpaid leave. The Turkish government provided an economic support to people who are on unpaid leave, but that amounts to less than half of the minimum wage (around 170 dollar per month), which is far from being sufficient for one person to pay the rent, let alone for a family to survive the whole month.

But there’s another very important issue here: One of the main differences between male and female unemployment is the access to unemployment benefits. In Turkey, in order to be eligible for the unemployment wage, you have to score a certain number of days worked with insurance, and most women in the labor force are unable to score that number because they cannot work at a full time-secure job because of domestic work, care work, or they are forced to quit when they get married or have kids, or because they work unregistered and paid under the table most of the time. So when they are fired from their jobs, we know that they will be the poorest without any backup system.

As for the situation of migrants and refugees in Turkey, it gets a bit darker. For the most part, the situation was already dark for them here, mainly because of the perception about the migration itself. There are more than 5 million migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, and undocumented people in Turkey as we know today. Around 3.5 million of them are Syrian population, the rest is from various origin countries. What the majority of Turkish society see when they consider migrants is simply a “problem.” And this perspective is the very reflection of the denial of the fact that migration is an integral part of our lives for a very long time. It’s not a “temporary” situation that will be gone, let’s say, after the Syrian conflict is resolved. It’s not a guest and house owner issue. It did not start in 2000s. It will not end. And it definitely did not only happen to Turkey. The world is a migrating world. It will always be. And we will keep seeing migration as a problem unless we start to understand the key factor: Basic human rights.

In Turkey, more than most other societies, these questions aren’t seen in terms of human rights. Last year Turkish government took really harsh measures that made life harder for migrants and refugees. The military operation in Northern Syria and the losses there, the economic crisis also added to the existing xenophobic, anti-refugee atmosphere in Turkey and thousands and thousands of families who started to rebuild a life are forcefully displaced again. Some were displaced inside the country, some were deported.

Even those migrants who are in the labor force are extremely vulnerable. There’s no way I can give you a number of their job losses because the vast majority of them work without registration because of Turkey’s migration regime.[i] Turkey does not give refugee status to any person except for European citizens. It doesn’t matter if they flee from a war or torture, or violence. So, although millions of people live in Turkey and everybody calls them refugees, they do not have such status. Therefore, they have no refugee rights either. They cannot apply to work permit; because this right belongs to the boss. You can imagine how few bosses are willing to apply to that permit instead of hiring a person unregistered and firing them whenever they want. So, the migrant workforce is mostly unregistered and therefore highly disposable. While some become unemployed, some are forced to work long hours without any protection.

And many families who had started to build a life in Turkey went back, or more precisely, were pushed back to square one during the pandemic. Migrant women and LGBTI are at the absolute bottom of this hierarchy. Many migrant women who had started to work for the first time in their lives, became the breadwinners of the family, became a part of the labor force, gained strength and confidence about themselves found themselves in a very harsh situation all of a sudden beyond the economic consequences we can imagine.

As expected, access to healthcare is a vital problem among migrants as well. A big part of the problem are status differences. Thousands of people have no access to the healthcare system or basic supplies because they are not given any protection status. Of course, there are some actions organized by some initiatives who also build solidarity, especially in the fields of gender equality and solidarity with migrants and refugees. Women’s movement in Turkey is actually very used to working in coordination, within initiatives or platforms. Again, Migrant Solidarity Network and We Want To Live Together Initiative continue to build solidarity around equal rights. These initiatives also tried to distribute material support within various neighborhoods. They did a great job in forcing some municipalities to extend their social support programs to include migrants and refugees. But it is still too little considering the lack of resources allocated for the welfare of the people. Most of the neighborhood initiatives try to create their own resources with solidarity.

And a more dangerous situation waits for us because the case numbers are not decreasing. (Actually it was just recently revealed, sorry, confessed by the minister himself that the government was lying about the case numbers all along.) But we are getting back to “normal” anyway; not because the pandemic is over but because the economy is collapsing, which clearly shows us our place in the hierarchy of priorities. In addition, we are more than sure that the main sectors the government will support during the post-pandemic days will not be social reproduction sectors that actually make life exist and sustain but the sectors like construction and/or –destructive- energy, which are their absolute favorite.

On top of all, the other pandemic spreading around the world, namely gender-based violence affects women’s lives in Turkey more heavily than ever before. This should be taken into consideration when we speak about social reproductive work since, as we all know, discrimination starts with birth and everything interconnects after that. Participating in the labor force or continuing education gets harder for a woman who is in a violent home and cannot get support. If we define health as the state of wellness, a refugee denied their basic rights or a woman subjected to violence are definitely far from being in a healthy environment. Just as Covid-19 sweeps our lives like a tornado, gender-based violence destroys lives of millions of women and just like Covid, it is a life or death situation for women and children. However, the Turkish government seems to think the opposite way.

Turkey’s record in terms of gender-based violence was already bleak before the pandemic; but it got worse and worse and in addition to that, many women who are subjected to violence were forced to “stay at home” with their torturers. They could not access the mechanisms that are supposed to be there for them. They were rejected by the very officials who are supposed to protect them. They were sent away from the shelters because they had to prove that they were Covid-negative. Plus, the most recent debates on the women’s hard-gained rights in Turkey also showed that the year 2020 would have been still very challenging for women in Turkey even without the pandemic.

One of the main issues brought in the agenda of women is the TCK 103 (Turkish Penal Code, Article 103) problem, in other words, a proposed motion to pass an amnesty for the perpetrators of sexual abuse of minors. Another debate have been revolving around the Istanbul Convention of which Turkey is the first signatory. It’s quite a challenge to keep the fight against a mentality that occupies the absolute majority of the Parliament and vastly dominates every sphere of life including media; however, women’s movement does not give any sign of pullback. In fact, the recent debate around the Istanbul Convention seems to increase the support to women’s movement, even among AKP voters. So, it’s only natural to ask the question: Why does a government who repeats that “they will fight against gender based violence” at every occasion tries so hard to withdraw from a Convention of which sole purpose is to eliminate gender based violence? Why does it even become a subject of debate in a country there’s at least one femicide almost every day?

In the Turkish case (and in many other places, of course), the ruling mentality already has a very obvious standpoint on gender equality in any sphere of life. And in terms of migrants and refugees, the perspective dominating Turkish politics is the perspective refuses to see the reality of migration and considers it as an issue to deal with. Just like they see women: A problem to overcome, or at least, to be silenced. However, this whole year showed us very clearly that women and migrant labor do the most vital and critical work that makes life on earth exist and survive.

[i] Here is how I can give you a rough idea about the level of job losses in refugee families: I have been conducting face-to-face and online focus-group meetings with small groups of Syrian women (5 women in each meeting) since July 2020 in order to understand the effects of the pandemic among the refugee families, especially on women. At least three women at each meeting told that there have been at least one job loss in the family since the beginning of the pandemic.