After a country-wide strike that took place in December, members of the Turkish Medical Association (TMA), affiliated local medical chambers, and other healthcare worker organizations and civil rights initiatives resorted to industrial action once again on February 8,. This was after the government failed to meet their demands for better working conditions. This latest action is part of what is now a wave of workers’ uprisings against rising living expenses and soaring inflation in Turkey. But they are also based on long-lasting issues which afflict the health system.
The strike, which brought together health workers all over Turkey, was organized under the slogan “Rights! Right now! No distractions!“ The workers declared that this was their last warning to the government and that if their demands were not met, the protests and demonstrations would intensify. While the actions took place all over the country, they were particularly successful in certain provinces such as Izmir. This was due to the well-organized solidarity between the local branch of the chamber of medicine and healthcare activists. This enabled the workers to organize such an impactful action even in pandemic conditions, where the communication between the professional organizations and their members are severely hindered.
Support for the strike among physicians, dentists, nurses, pharmacists, healthcare technicians and other personnel was widespread. The nation-wide strike call was mainly carried out at public and university-affiliated hospitals, in large-scale facilities in urban centers as well as smaller hospitals and primary care centers in townships. Due to the strong political polarization in the country however, governing bodies of some professional organizations did not participate as they were hesitant to oppose the ruling coalition and its policies. While being indirectly involved in places where public health services are provided, private health institutions and pharmacies generally kept themselves aside in this dispute.
Although the strike was announced about one week before the action took place, the Ministry of Health did not make a statement on this matter. Most hospital administrators neutrally observed the strike, not showing any acts of support or opposition, but some administrations threatened striking healthcare workers with legal action, and some university professors forced their assistants to work. In some provinces, the police actively hindered demonstrations. In the province of Van, members of the local Chamber of Medicine were detained during the strike.
The importance of a functioning health system in the middle of a crisis
The protests took place at a time of increasing strikes by workers across Turkey. Among others, workers at Trendyol, one of the world’s largest e-commerce companies, and the local offices of BBC in Istanbul, took industrial action to secure an increase of income adequate to the rise of prices of basic living necessities, including food and energy. Inflation in Turkey has been on the rise for months now, reaching 40% in January, according to government data. Independent researchers claim this rate could be even higher, going to as much as 110%.
Due to the rising costs, the people of Turkey have struggled to access key services and commodities. This applies to a large part of the health worker population, some of whom work for salaries that push them below the poverty line. While healthcare workers have experienced problems because of their income level and workload before, the increased workload during the pandemic and the growing economic crisis in the country have made these problems even more visible. The minimum wage being below the poverty line, worsening working conditions, unchecked violence against healthcare personnel, and at the structural level, the aggressive commercialization of healthcare through neoliberal policies has led to a widespread burning-out of healthcare workers in a profit-oriented health system.
The TMA has been in the forefront of the fight for the improvement of both physicians’ labor rights and the protection and improvement of public health for years now. Working conditions, rights, and welfare of health workers play a key role in the provision of a high-quality and accessible health service. Working in safe and humanized conditions would increase the quality of the care health workers provide, and working independently of economic motivations would positively affect the mood and productivity of all healthcare workers. In this regard, all the struggles for the rights of healthcare workers ultimately lead to a high-quality, humanized health service accessible by everyone.
Actions to continue until demands are met
In this context, since October 2021, the TMA has rallied its members under the slogan “Ours is the labor, ours is the voice!“, and organized numerous strikes all over the country. The governing party, unable to ignore such strong organized reaction, urgently proposed a new bill in the parliament to partially increase physicians’ salaries in the beginning of December 2021. However, this version of the bill could have disrupted labor peace, since it did not include all healthcare workers. As a result of opposition by different health workers’ groups, the Ministry of Health withdrew the bill proposal, claiming to work further on it before re-submitting it as soon as possible but has not done so yet.
On February 8, healthcare workers emphasized their determination to strike. They declared that they would continue their fight until their conditions improved. The public agrees that the workers’ legitimate and humane demands must be met. Even the Minister of Health himself has made positive comments and statements regarding the demands. However, experience shows that the decision-making processes that are usually present in a democratic system are faltering in this case, and that the statements or thoughts of the Minister of Health bring little leverage to the bargaining table. Whether the health workers’ demands are met or not depends solely on the President. – no other factor seems to be decisive in this regard.
Physicians and health personnel will continue to fight for the society’s right to improved health, for their professional honor, and future by increasing the solidarity among themselves and increasing their activities soon.
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Dr. Lütfi Çamlı is Head of the Izmir Chamber of Medicine