06/07/2012

The Frustrations of Working Life in Turkey

Picture courtesy of Demotix
It is one of those curious cultural-linguistic ironies that Turkish has no direct word for "frustrating".


Before you say it, yes, sinir bozucu - literally "nerve-shattering"  - is a close fit, but that doesn't count because it is an idiomatic expression, stupid. Nevertheless, working in Turkey is probably one of the most frustrating things in the world most of the time. Be it payment errors, late payments, mis-information, changing contracts, broken holiday promises or sneaky bosses calling each-other to guarentee you have no-where to run, everyone has a story.

Many a Western diplomat from the days of yore, even, constantly complained in their annals about the 'dastardly Turk'. Alfred Dwight Foster Hamlin, an American architect commenting on the Treaty of Lausanne once famously snubbed Turkish independence as "worthless and the Turks untrustworthy." 

That might be rich, given the imperial powers spent most of the hundred years leading up to Turkish independence pulling the empire apart through stealth, by being worthless and untrustworthy. In fact they were so good at being worthless and untrustworthy that by the end of the First World War they had pulled Istanbul itself right from under the "untrustworthy" Turks' pointy slippers. But I disgress...

This attitude has not, unfortunately, been completely erased. I've often heard statements such as, "I love the Turks, but I would never do business with one". Whether looking for a plumber, or starting a company - people who have been burnt here have readily retreated to primitive stereotyping, but what they don't understand how "political", in terms of human relationships, everything is here - whether it is business, friends, politics or anything else, and it has taken me a while to come to terms with this fact, but life can be pretty serious, and no part of life is more cut-throat than business. 

However, before going into the implications of this, allow me to indulge you on another piece of linguistic irony: The word "naive" had to be imported to the Turkish language, but even then, it retained none of the same implications it has in European languages. Rather than "easily beguiled", it means sensitive or fragile.

In other words, niavity is simply not a luxury available. In fact, being unaware is such a faux-pas that Elif Shafak once observed the sentence "I don't know" as being a taboo statement in Turkey. 

My advice to foreigners here would, simply put, be "be street-smart", but I must follow that up by saying (equally) "don't be a prick". I have learnt the joys of being frank about problems, but at the same time, being patient and understanding of employers is a must. Others fail to combine their directness with patience or sympathy and make bitter enemies - which is particularly dangerous for further employment, not to mention their personal reputation. 

Observing foreign teachers when I first came to Istanbul, I was repulsed. They attended staff meetings and job interviews with all the attitude and unabashed arrogance of a seasoned tourist (or "traveller" as they would insist on being called) screaming down the price of a five lira coffee-mug at the Grand Bazaar

In a way, I get it, and I've been told a thousand times. A Persian friend of mine once laughed at my readiness to sit down for a cup of tea with anyone who invited me into their shop, saying "This is the East, Liam - when people are nice to you, they always want something in return". Turkish friends say similar things to me at work. In fact, on my first teaching job, I was told to be careful about being to nice and taught a powerful expression: "If you give them a hand, they will take an arm". However...

Things could be worse

Things could be worse, and they are worse - for Turks that is. This is something that should not be forgotten by those foreigners quick to re-live some good old-fashioned Orientalist racism.

The workers at my local bakal often don't have change for twenty liras, and they work twelve-hour shifts. My local barman back in Izmir worked 10am - 1am every day. Private school teachers, and female teachers in particular, can expect to make only three-quarters the average wage of a foreign teacher at the absolute most. Every teacher is contracted for only one year, meaning that when asked "are you staying on next year?", the reply from a Turkish teacher is almost always "we'll see what they say in July" - otherwise they are on their own. The state can only take as many as are needed to fill school places in the Titantic evacuation that is the Ministry of Education's annual quota announcement. 

As for blue-collar workers, the situation is even more dire. They are handing out leaflets all over Bakırköy square and many other places right now, to protest against the recent Turkish Airlines scandal. After a parliamentary commission just voted in favour of a law to abolish aviation workers' right to strike, the aviation workers' union called for a general slow-down of work in airports, causing delays and cancellations in protest of the outrageous move. In return, the administration fired 150 of the strikers. This is just a sign of things to come. As the BBC's Turkey correspondent Johnathan Head rightly pointed out a few years ago - "Prime Minister Erdogan is more of a Margaret Thatcher than an Ayatollah Khomeini" - and that would be a pretty dud election indeed.

So furious and total is Turkey's drive for privatization, that resources are hard fought over. The West is currently in a slow state of recovery since its economic crash a few years ago. Turkey has crashed three times in the last twenty years, and thus, in the words of automobile company Ford Otosaniye's boss in a recent interview, has as such, learnt to be frugal with its resources. Let's hope this attitude has not caused it to be frugal with its working rights too, or the mistrust and deceit will only increase.

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