The district of Gebze, 30 miles east of Istanbul, has experienced rapid growth in recent years. International industry has flooded into the region. You'll find factories manufacturing silicon chips, trams, and railway voltage transformers. Not for nothing is this described as the industrial heartland of Turkey, although the area not so long ago was just empty fields, punctuated by the occasional farmhouse or mosque.
Gebze is also home to a major Avon warehouse, employing over 200 Turkish workers, most of whom are women. Around 44 of the workers are registered as Avon employees. Klüh, a German multi-service firm and Avon's official Turkish subcontractor, employs the rest. The factory has a critical role in the distribution network of the global cosmetics giant, which operates under the motto, "The Company For Women." Staff pack and ship cosmetics, ready to be sold by friendly neighborhood 'Avon ladies' in living rooms across Europe.
Since the end of May, workers have protested what they describe as unfair and discriminatory working practices—and they claim that they have been punished for doing so.
While Klüh employees are paid the legal minimum wage regardless of length of service (1,300 Turkish lira, or around $450/month), those employed directly by Avon take home around 2,500 lira ($860). In December, workers unionized to protest the pay discrepancy, along with other grievances such as compulsory overtime—workers allege often working 15 days straight—and health concerns, such as back problems from standing up all day and working. When approached for comment, Avon said it would look into the allegations.
Earlier this year, Klüh management attempted to impose a new contract that allow them to move workers to any other facility without prior consultation, alongside introducing a two-month trial period on workers no matter how long they'd been employed at the facility. Eighty workers protested; the response was allegedly swift and brutal. On May 19, management summoned six known union members into their offices and fired them, as well as two non-union colleagues. Since then, union members have picketed the Gebze factory every day in Turkey's arid summer heat.
Eylem Görgü, 36, is one of the fired employees. She had worked at the factory for a decade and picked orders in the warehouse, although she tells me she was often asked to cover a wide range of other tasks. She's convinced she was fired as a result of joining the staff union.
"I'd won two staff awards, and been elected best 'team member' because I was good at communicating with people. I didn't enjoy working in the factory, because it was tiring work and the breaks were so short. You never knew when you were going to get home, because so often they made us work overtime." Görgü is afraid for the future of her family; both her mother and sister were dependent on her income.
Sub-contracted employees at the Avon facility complain of being second-class citizens. "There's a big difference between Avon workers and us," she adds. "There's always this big pressure: 'Do it this way or else you're free to go.' They'd expect the same level of performance, but we're not robots. It made me upset and demoralized. Every morning when I woke up I'd think I couldn't face going back to Avon."
Another fired employee echoes these grievances. "There is such a big difference between Avon workers and subcontractor workers," Akin Gerçek, 40, says. "Avon workers despise us." I ask how he felt when he was fired. "I felt very bad and disappointed. I wasn't expecting it and I don't think I've deserved it." He says that a manager told him that he was fired because of Article 25/2 in the Turkish Labour Code, which punishes "immoral, dishonorable or malicious behavior."
The factory workers attempting to unionize say that their efforts have been consistently stymied by Avon management, though the company deny that this led to the firings. An Avon spokesperson said in a statement: "The terminations of some positions in our outsourced warehouse services have no relation to union members. Unfortunately, we made the decision with our service provider, to terminate the contracts of eight of our outsourced employees last month based on the national labor law.
We would like to underline that we do not tolerate or practice any activity limiting our outsourced employees to use their rights to become union members and the reason of terminations was not their union activities." Klüh did not respond to requests for comment.
Meanwhile, Gerçek, Görgü, and their fellow ex-workers continue their daily vigil outside the Avon factory in Gebze. "My mother and two children are dependent on me," Gerçek says. "For now I will continue my resistance, but at some point I need to earn their keep."