Over the past three years, Turkey has gone from being the world's 23rd largest shipbuilder to being eighth on the list. In Tuzla, nearly 25,000 workers now operate in an area designed to accommodate roughly a quarter of that number.
This boom has come at a cost, though. As business in Tuzla has grown, so has the number of workers injured or killed on the job. So far this year, 17 workers have died in Tuzla's shipyards, compared to 11 in 2007.
Standing outside one of the shipyards, worker Erdal Karadag says going to his job every day feels like a roll of the dice. "Honestly, we are always wondering if we will make it back home from work. In the morning I kiss my children in bed thinking I might not see them in the evening," says Karadag, whose only piece of company-issued safety equipment is a beaten-up hardhat that he lines with rags to keep it from cutting his scalp.
Adds Murat Catal, a co-worker standing nearby: "The work conditions are indescribable. The priority is to deliver the ships on time, no matter what the cost. The companies are not ready to say our safety is their priority."
Karadag and Catal, like nearly 90 percent of Tuzla's workers, are employed by one of 1,500 subcontracting firms that operate in the shipyards. Workers' rights advocates say the growing use of subcontractors -- usually poorly trained and supervised -- may benefit Tuzla's shipbuilders, but it is putting workers at risk. It also appears to contravene Turkish law, which limits the kind of work that can be farmed out to subcontractors.
"Subcontracting is a way of flexibilizing labor and lowering the cost of labor. That's what gives Turkey its competitive edge before anything else," says Asli Odman, a member of the Monitoring Committee on the Working and Safety Conditions at the Tuzla Shipyards, a watchdog group.
"But I don't think a long-term solution [to the safety issue] can be found until the practice of subcontracting is no longer used in an illegal way, using the subcontractor to do the main building work. This renders any coordination of safety or health impossible. It blurs who is responsible for safety at a shipyard. It is not possible to coordinate health and safety if you have 70 different subcontracting companies working in and for one shipyard."
In a recently issued report, Turkey's State Auditing Commission (DDK) found much to criticize in how the shipyards were being operated. "Some work that should be completed by the main contractors is being done by subcontractors. However, a sufficient and efficient control system could not be performed in line with this," the report stated. "Work management and coordination is poor, although subcontracting is widespread. . . . Employers do not attach due importance to deficiencies in work security."
Says Cem Dinc, chairman of Limter-Is, a shipbuilders' union that has been organizing subcontractors in the Tuzla shipyards: "There are laws in place, but they are not being implemented. The words of the shipyard bosses are in effect the law. We want the government to enforce the laws that are in place."
Workers in the shipyards paint a dismal picture of work conditions. Safety equipment and training are lacking, combustible materials are not secured properly and unskilled workers are sent out to do work they are not qualified to do. In August, three workers drowned in a botched test of a lifeboat, a procedure usually conducted using sandbags instead of humans. Workers also complain about low wages -- sometimes no more than 3 lira (about $2) per hour -- and being forced to work long hours with no overtime pay.
"The workers are working under the worst form of precarious employment; they are exposed to inhuman and totally unacceptable working conditions and run a daily risk of losing their lives. This has to be stopped now," Peter Scherrer, General Secretary of the European Metalworkers' Federation (EMF), said during a recent fact-finding visit to the Tuzla shipyards.
Mustafa Unar, general secretary of the Turkish Association of Ship Industrialists, a trade group based in Tuzla, suggests shipbuilders might have been caught unprepared by the industry's rapid growth in recent years. He went on to downplay the significance of the spate of deaths and injuries in the shipyards. "Do these events really warrant all this attention? Of course, we don't like these accidents, but they are just like accidents that happen in the construction industry, or the way traffic accidents are unavoidable," he says during an interview in his office.
"Every ship is a factory in itself. It's a dangerous process."
The increased public scrutiny of the problems at the shipyards has already led to some changes. Workers, for example, now must attend quickie safety classes sponsored by the government and the Turkish Shipbuilders Association (GISBIR), a powerful industry group. But critics say these changes have mostly been cosmetic.
"Before this issue became a public one, conditions were very bad. We were given masks that didn't keep anything that was in the air out and other poor equipment. The safety level has improved now, but it's not enough," says Levent Akhan, a subcontractor who was fired in September after reporting an accident -- a piece of heavy machinery fell on a colleague, breaking his back -- to the Limter-Is union.
"We were given new safety training, but we weren't given the means to implement it," he adds. After the training, Akhan continues, workers were provided with safety harnesses to be used while working on high scaffoldings. The only problem was that there were no places to attach the harnesses on the scaffoldings being used in the shipyard he was working in.
Says the monitoring committee's Odman: "It's an issue that gets hot when there is a death at the shipyards, but I don't think that anything structural has changed."
Yigal Schleifer is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.