Keeping the Wheels Turning at all Costs: Factories as COVID-19 Clusters – Interview with Aslı Odman
Factories have been COVID-19 clusters from the beginning of the pandemic. Recently, business have been trying hard to refute the role of the manufacturing sector as the main contributor of new COVID-19 cases, but factories are still among the most aggressive means of spreading the disease. In this last piece of our “Factory Reloaded” series, Aslı Odman, an instructor at Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University, and a founding member and volunteer at Istanbul Health and Safety Labor Watch, discusses the socio-spatial inequalities triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic in industrial workspaces on both local and global scales.
The global health crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic had tremendous and destructive impacts on society. It has unveiled already existing social inequalities and vulnerabilities in many areas, such as access to health or education services, which led us to think about class relations again. On a global scale, what has been the effect of the pandemic on industrial workers?
The pandemic not only unveiled the already existing social inequalities but also aggravated them. Sociologists of health have been addressing the social determinants of health and life expectancy, so this did not come as a surprise to researchers working on inequalities arising from how, where, and when one works in a capitalist society. Yet the social inequalities produced in spaces where capitalism reproduces itself – that is, primarily in physical workspaces – as well as inequalities based on socio-professional activity, were neglected in terms of data-sharing and pandemic policies in most countries. This is especially true if we exclude some bits of information that exposed otherwise obscure areas. For example, these were either very salient, visible workplace clusters, like care homes, hospitals, and slaughterhouses, or places that had workers’ resistances, as occurred in warehouses and organized industry zones, among other locations. In Turkey, we can talk about a total eclipse of workspace risks, which constitutes a continuity with the pre-pandemic policies of state, capital, and other ideological apparatuses, like the press or academic research on labor.
In terms of the effect of the pandemic on specifically industrial workers, we should talk about two different types and directions of relations. In doing this, we should first differentiate between scales of industrial work. From largest to smallest, these include organized industrial zones (which are sometimes called special production zones, free zones, etc.), factories, workshops, small informal units (which are attached to housing units called “under-the-counter workshops”), artisanal units, and home production.
Firstly, large-scale industrial workplaces were important COVID-19 clusters. When workers’ health and safety measures, elevated to a higher level during the pandemic, were not met by employers, these industrial workplaces became super-spreader spaces as well as public health problems. Mainly, this resulted from high numbers of workers toiling, eating, and moving alongside each other with little or no distance, and going to work every day using public transportation, crowded especially along the commuting routes. In Turkey, no data was kept and shared on the infection rates at workplaces, on workplace clusters, or regarding socio-professional backgrounds – that is, the cursus laboris (or work history) of infected or deceased people. The workplaces and capitalist working relations of different sectors and scales were systematically rendered invisible and this quickly became one of the reasons of the accelerating spread of the disease. The acute lack of the measures of workers’ health and safety was translated into severe public health negligence. Since the state didn’t see and keep data on workplaces and did not allow or facilitate local governments or civil society organizations to do so, its policies were not directed towards these large-scale sources of infection. As a result, the population adjacent to industrial workers – such as their families, or people they shared public facilities with – suffered because the chain of transmission was not cut off at the start of the spreads. Similarly, non-essential lines of industrial production were not stopped by measures such as protecting and compensating workers from public funds set aside for real “states of emergency”. Instead, “keep the wheels turning at all costs!” was the motto of the corporatocratic regime.
Secondly, most medium and small-sized industrial workplaces are not separated from central residential areas in Turkish metropoles. Rather, they are tightly interwoven into the urban fabric. Despite their smaller size, their proximity to all age segments of the urban population made them an additional type of super spreader.
To give a concrete example, let’s map a few relevant aspects of the industrial landscape of Istanbul. The city accommodates millions of employees working in nearly 15,000 different formal business units registered with the Istanbul Chamber of Industry. This includes the Tuzla Shipbuilding Zone, nearly 20 Organized Industrial Zones and Small Industrial Areas (five in Tuzla, three in Ümraniye, Küçükçekmece, and Büyükçekmece, and the rest are Small Industrial Areas), and three Free Zones, where thousands of people work side by side daily. Thousands of poorly ventilated, sometimes windowless, formal, informal, or semi-formal workshops, apartments, and under-the-counter businesses in the neighborhoods near the two highways that crisscross the city form an important part of the urban landscape. Workers have to work side by side to make a living and to turn the “wheel of debt bondage” at the pace of capital accumulation not only in industrial workplaces but also in hundreds of ports, depots, warehouses, and logistics centers established to continuously feed, clothe, and supply raw materials to Istanbul, a massive space of production and consumption.
When looking at the specifics of workspaces, both of the following formations increase the risk of spreading the virus. It could either be more than 50 workers commuting and working in the same workplace daily, or a condensation of workplaces with less than 50 workers, but which are situated in dense urban areas and located within housing units, such as apartment buildings. For a general overview of “laboring Istanbul”, we should keep in mind that there are 5.5 million formal workers in the city, 350,000 of which are public servants and 600,000 of which are self-employed. The overall rate of those working from home in Turkey is calculated as 25 percent at most. Although this rate is slightly higher in Istanbul, it means that more than 4 million people work “without the luxury of staying at home”, and a significant number of them work in conditions that cause the pandemic to spread faster. At least 40 percent of the formally employed – that is, nearly 1,720,000 workers in the city – work in a total of 10,000 business units that employ more than 50 workers. This is a massive category of potential COVID-19 clusters that were not registered or accounted for, and for which no policy was developed.
During the pandemic, the Istanbul Health and Safety Labor Watch has documented other violations of workers’ rights beyond the right to health. At some well-known and established factories (e.g., metal and food) and (mega-infrastructure) construction sites, workers were literally locked in at their workplace. Their liberty of movement was restricted to “keep the production process” going. They were forced to reside in nearby vacated student dormitories or construction site containers – or were otherwise threatened with dismissal – to name a few of the enforcement methods. Healthy workers replaced the ill ones and worked longer hours and more intensively to keep production at pre-pandemic levels. Due to the economic crisis that accompanied the health crisis, there were also serial dismissals and practices of forced unpaid leave, which minimized the already low power of the collective resistance of industrial workers in Turkey. However, the fragmented workers’ resistances did not lose pace or frequency.
This was on the one hand a global crisis, but, on the other, each state dealt with it in its own ways. One example concerns the recognition of COVID-19 as an occupational disease. While the working classes and their representative institutions fought for the categorization of COVID-19 as an occupational disease, the Turkish state did not accept this demand. What are the differences in the social policies on labor between the pre-pandemic and pandemic periods in Turkey?
There is a perfect continuity from the pre-pandemic to the pandemic period in recognizing occupational diseases. Here, there is a politics of non-politics, systematic ignorance, and the active invisibilization of the relation between disease and work.
Despite the general difficulties in recognizing occupational diseases throughout capitalist countries, we have reliable estimates by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labor Organization (ILO), which state that deaths due to occupational diseases occur approximately six times more often than deaths from work accidents. As of 2011, the Istanbul Health and Safety Labor Watch has been documenting deaths from occupational accidents, and records at least 2000 deaths per year. In other words, despite the fact that – according to the most conservative estimate – 10,000–12,000 employees lose their lives every year due to occupational diseases in Turkey, in the official statistics, no one seems to have died from an occupational disease since 2013. Another reliable estimation is that at least 10 percent of those who die from cancer each year die from occupational cancers. More than 10,000 occupational cancer deaths should have been recorded, but the official figure is “zero”. Getting sick because of work is an area that the Turkish capitalist regime pushed into invisibility. The burden of proving that the disease is linked to the working conditions lies with the workers, who are placed against the big bureaucratic social security machine. It is as if there are no peasants or seasonal agricultural, factory, mine, and shipyard workers who come in contact with toxic materials, dust, or pesticides on a daily basis during their entire working life.
These structural limits were reinforced during the pandemic. Under public pressure in the face of serial losses of health personnel, the Ministry of Health was pushed to issue a special circular concerning only the health personnel in December 2020. But even this hasn’t changed the basic traits of the system. The infection or death of a health worker is not automatically accepted as an occupational disease. Even the family of a nurse who dies while working in a pandemic hospital is expected to prove that she was infected while working (and not while resting at home). Consistently, the burden of proof is placed on the employee or, if they have died, on their family.
At the moment, we have only a few cases won by families of diseased healthcare workers, who had to go before the court for this. Meanwhile, all other actively working parts of society – essential workers, like couriers, teachers, cashiers, and warehouse and factory laborers – who became ill or lost their lives don’t even think about filing cases. Unfortunately, trade unions also don’t see occupational diseases as a field for organizing.
The pandemic had an unprecedented impact on workers in global supply chains, and particularly on those in vulnerable groups, such as low-paid migrant workers. The effect is also devastating on manufacturing, especially in the garment industry in lower and middle-income countries. Garment workers are deemed at high risk of job losses and decreased working hours due to COVID-19 disruptions. In your research, together with Murat Tülek, on the visualization of COVID cases in Istanbul, you found that densely populated residential areas, which also have textile workshops, have been hubs of COVID-19. Because cases are registered on the basis of residential addresses, industrial zones outside residential areas seem to have very few cases although we know that they have been super-spreader spaces. This sits in contrast to other countries, such as France, where industrial workplaces have been recorded as COVID clusters. What do the politics of data keeping tell us about the invisibilization of industrial health? And more generally, what was the outcome of your research on the geographies of workplaces and how they relate to socio-spatial inequalities in Istanbul?
In a recent study by a data company, Total Analysis, Turkey ranks 97th out of 100 countries in terms of the transparency of pandemic data. The lack of transparency during a pandemic is not only a problem for record keeping but is also a sign of a lack of accountability and proper pandemic policies, which costs thousands of lives. These lives are situated among the most vulnerable populations, like refugees, people who live on daily incomes, unemployed women caring for the reproduction of their family, and workers squeezed into workplaces.
I have mentioned that the data shared by the Ministry of Health that served as the basis of the public pandemic policy only contained aggregated and under-documented figures without differentiating according to relevant micro-administrative scales, such as districts and neighborhoods, gender, age, income groups, occupational groups or sectors, workplaces, ethnicity, educational opportunities obtained, accompanying diseases, disease symptoms, and risk groups. A second form of publicly accessible information was a mobile phone application called HES, which vaguely showed infection rates in the form of a heat map. This was, however, based on the residences of the infected people. Both data categories excluded the importance of workplace COVID-19 clusters and the socio-professional factors for the risk of infection.
Confronted with this blatant absence, Murat Tülek, an urban researcher, and I created social maps. We superposed the heat maps with an income+age distribution map from 2018 and a map of the distribution of industrial workplaces in Istanbul. We could make some spatial analyses about the perfect invisibility of large-scale, isolated industrial areas, and the relative safe havens of gated communities, which offer mostly educated middle and upper-middle classes working from home the possibility of “introverting into class”. The third cluster of analysis concerns your question on the urban areas in the European side of the city, where light industry, including the garment industry, is mainly situated. The neighborhoods where small and medium-sized businesses and dwellings are nested un-distanced and undifferentiated from each other never ceased to be hubs of continuous infection. In neighborhoods where small-scale businesses (mostly textile, metalwork, chemical, paper, and food industries) are intertwined with residences on the European side of Istanbul, an intense infection cluster is observed when HEP records are taken from different periods during the pandemic. The areas where small and medium manufacturing-industry workplaces are concentrated in the Bağcılar, Bahçelievler, Güngören, and Esenler districts between the two highways became and remain a grave “red infection island” in terms of epidemic risk from a very early period. Murat Tülek and I created social maps of a densely populated neighborhood with little access to green urban areas and with proximity to central transportation routes, which constituted condensed COVID-19 islands, reflecting the spatial inequalities inflicted upon the working class.
If we want to learn more about the garment industry, we could turn to a rare report compiled by the Gaziantep (a – compared to Istanbul – recently and fervently industrializing province in the south-east region of Anatolia, located at the border between Syria and Turkey) Branch of the Union of Textile Workers (Disk/Tekstil-Sen Gaziantep Şube) in July of this year. The city’s economy works mainly with textiles, and the garment industry is spatially centralized in organized industrial zones. The report bears witness to infected workers whose infection certificates were not accepted, who were forced to continue to work, and who died alongside their infected family members. It also shows how entire garment-worker districts that were put under quarantine were then taken out of this status on the special wishes of industrialists to “keep the wheels turning”. Protesting and organizing workers were sacked using special clauses of the Labor Code (Code 29), which mainly defined this as “unruliness and ‘immoral behavior’ on the shop floor”. Central as well as local public health authorities of this garment province, both from the ruling AKP party as well as the main opposition CHP party, turned a blind eye to the continuous deadly accumulation.
The pandemic aggravated the gendered practices of discrimination, violence, and harassment by widening the wage gaps, increasing the underrepresentation of women’s voices, decreasing their representation and leadership, and intensifying their double burden. Women workers are the first ones to be fired in low-paid, low-tech industries in the Global South. In Turkey, for example, a legal exception to the ban on dismissing workers during the pandemic, the now famous “Code 29”, has been used to fire workers exhibiting “behaviors that do not comply with the rules of ethics and goodwill”. Has this code also been used to fire women workers from factories or to exert stricter labor control through patriarchal means? Did the factories that were turned into prisons also include ones with a majority of women workers? In one case, in a canned-fish factory, workers were locked inside dormitories after COVID cases had been detected, and they were forced to stay and work at the factory for fourteen days. In another factory, bus services were canceled to force workers to work longer hours. Has the pandemic provided capital with newfound opportunities for stricter (gendered) labor control?
There are two issues in this question, which are interrelated but need to be discussed separately. First are the “newfound opportunities for stricter labor control”, which always contained and contains elements of patriarchal control. I and a team of five other researchers compiled a report based on the study of posts by workers and the labor press on Twitter during the first lockdown (13 March–1 June 2020). We found 12 different types of labor rights violations that indicate a harsher implication of labor control methods. These are as follows: mass dismissals without due compensation before the ban of dismissals was introduced on 16 April 2020; dismissals of unionizing or protesting workers using Code 29; forcing workers, who are replacing their infected colleagues, to work longer hours and more intensively; forcing workers to work even if there are reports or suspicions of infection on the workplace; cases blocking workers’ efforts to get a sick certificate; locking workers up in factories, in construction sites, or in nearby empty dormitories for students; forcing workers to work without proper and necessary workers’ health and safety measures during the pandemic; forcing them to take unpaid leave during the ban on dismissals; seizing part of due pay, fringe benefits, overtime pay, or other rights as part of the collective agreement; forced retirement; forcing informal workers to break the rules of the lockdown and commute to work or work without proper special certificates; and discriminating between direct workers and subcontracted workers in terms of workers’ health and safety.
Regarding the health and safety of women workers during pandemic, I should first mention that the proportion of low-paid, low-skilled health workers who are confronted with the highest infection risks in Turkey are women (around 70 percent of these workers). These include nurses, cleaning personnel, orderlies, aides, assistants, paramedics, personal care aides, home health aides, hygienists, and massage therapists. This is also true for the majority of education workers who, even though kindergartens and schools were kept closed most of the time, went to schools on the orders of their authorizing officers for reasons including organization and formation. Other essential and risky sectors where female workers predominate relative to their average representation in the general workforce are retail trade, warehouses, and the tourism, garment, and food sectors, where “the reels kept turning” regardless of lockdown measures. In workplaces of reproductive labor – that is, places such as homes – the double burden of women increased and became the norm, reinforcing the gendered division of labor in most households within different classes. Caring for children whose schools were closed, for the elderly, for those working outdoors in the family, as well as for the increased hygienic needs of the household, while simultaneously working for the market, lay on the shoulders of women more than before. Seasonal agricultural work was another space where “family work” (that is, the work of women, girls, and children) predominated. Here, the percentage of refugee women and girls is high. The continuity in this highly essential agricultural sector was never interrupted, but the infections of those who nourished a society under lockdown were not even registered due to their lack of citizen status.
In 2020, the already low participation of women in the workforce diminished by 7 percent and in employment by 5.2 percent. Where no alternatives for childcare were offered by the state, leaving the formal workforce was the only solution available to many women. The unemployment rate of women has historically been higher than that of men, but in September 2020, this gap climbed to a record level of 34.8 percent for women compared to 24.8 for men. The double burden and the lockdown also added to the already grave situation of domestic violence against women.
Since the very low social transfer payments, which are mostly directed to employers, were limited to their formally employed workers, women – mostly active in informal sectors, seasonal work, home production, daily employment, and reproductive work – were excluded to a greater extent than men. The wage differential between male and female wages was around one-third before the pandemic. We can assume that this differential decreased with these detrimental effects, widening the pay gap.
Ekmek ve Gül, the Women’s Commission of the Labor Party (Emek Partisi) compiled a report by interviewing 689 women workers in 22 different provinces and in 23 different occupational fields on their pandemic work experiences. Here, women described an extraordinary increase in workforce turnover in order for workplaces to profit from state incentive payments for newly hired workers, an intensification of work, the handing over of the increased necessity for hygiene to female workers where their job description did not include this, the disciplining of the workforce by discriminatory use of forced unpaid leave, Code 29, the rotation to more risky tasks, a surge of psychological and sexual harassment by foremen, and reduced time for recreation both at work and at home due to their increased double burden. Their witness accounts exemplify expressions of burn-out and exhaustion; anxiety (by one-third of the interviewed women) about their children, whom they leave alone at home; fears of the future due to the risk of their children dropping out of school; unemployment; the loss of daily income; increased violence; and tension at home.
Despite the increased patriarchal labor control in workplaces and the despotic neo-conservative regime in Turkey, workers’ resistances did not cease but rather increased during the pandemic. The wheels of the economy kept turning, as did the fragmented resistances of the workers. The bulk of the formal and informal workers (mainly refugees, women, and children) who could not “stay home” did not stay at their workplaces despite curfews and local bans on rallies, but interrupted the production processes, protested their dismissals, and reclaimed their rights in terms of work, severance, and accident payments, workers health and safety, and unionization in several sectors, like health, municipal services, mining, retail trade, construction, gastronomy, tourism, metal and electronics, garment, warehouses, energy, communication and post, and transportation. New independent workers’ organizations were formed among the urban workforce under the umbrella of “Solidarity of Urban Workers”. This included workers in places like cafes, bars, malls, restaurants, delivery and tourism sectors, private universities, and schools. The lethargy and a lack of dynamism of the communication channels of established unions empowered social media as a medium for the expression of workers’ culture and resistances, even if this medium was dispersed.
 For the interactive maps from September 6, 2020, see: Istanbul general (clusters of industry and a COVID-19 heat map), light industry on the European side of Istanbul (income+age differentiations and a COVID-19 heat map), and heavy industry on the Asian side of Istanbul (income+age differentiations and a COVID-19 heat map).
Aslı Odman is a social scientist, a lecturer at the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University, and a founding volunteer of Istanbul Health and Safety Labor Watch. She studied economics at the Vienna University of Economics and received her master’s degree in political science from Vienna University. Her graduate research looked at the 1930s economic nationalist formation of the nation state in Mexico and Turkey. Her PhD research, conducted at the Atatürk Modern History Institute at Boğaziçi University, considered the global production network of the Ford Motor Company condensed in Istanbul. Her recent research focuses on the university as a profit-oriented corporation and the labor aspects of capitalist work organization with regard to ship building, mining, construction, agriculture, and the film industries. As part of her action-oriented research, she participates in grassroots struggles responding to corporate crimes and state abuses against the right to the city, the environment, and public health. She also works on experimental social maps of the socio-spatial inequality of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Further articles in the Factory Reloaded series on TRAFO:
Görkem Akgöz, Malak Labib, and Nurçin İleri, Factory Reloaded: Transregional Perspectives on the Industrial Workplace, 18 February 2021.
Görkem Akgöz, Spaces of National-Industrial Modernity: Factories and Factory Women in Early Republican Turkey, 5 March 2021.
André Weißenfels, Middle Class Factory: The (partial) Privilege of industrial Labor in Tunisia, 19 March 2021.
Rick Halpern, “The Pictures Are the Thing”: Farm Security Administration Photographers Document the American Factory in the Depression Era, 30 March 2021.
Josefine Carla Hoffmann, Training as a Gatekeeper at the Indo-German Factory, 16 April 2021.
Malak Labib, Re-shaping the “Socialist Factory” in Egypt in the Late 1960s–1970s, 30 April 2021.
Nurçin İleri, Nationalism on the Shop Floor: The Silahtarağa Electric Power Plant in the Early 1920s, 18 May 2021.
Nico Pizzolato, Disassembling Fordism from the Inside: Transnational Radicals in Detroit and Turin in the 1960s, 28 May 2021.
Goran Musić, European Textile Production Subcontracting and the Transformation of Apparel Factories in Yugoslavia and Morocco, 11 June 2021.
Mariana Stoler, Material Determinations and Workers’ Identity: An Analysis of an Argentinian Steelworks, 25 June 2021.
Ivana Hadjievska, “The workshops are seedbeds for degeneration”: Forms of Exposure and Protection of Workers’ Bodies in Vardar Macedonia, 14 July 2021.
Christian Strümpell and Hasan Ashraf, Of ‘nimble fingers’ and ‘jacquard’s soldiers’: Up-scaling, Up-skilling, and the Re-masculinization of Labor in Bangladesh’s Garment Industry, 23 July 2021.
Citation: Keeping the Wheels Turning at all Costs: Factories as COVID-19 Clusters – Interview with Aslı Odman, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 10.08.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/30605.