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The dark face of Turkey’s construction frenzy

As the sprawling urbanization continues unabated, the dark face of this construction boom goes largely unnoticed

Mahir Zeynalov

Published: Updated:

Rising skyscrapers and a growing number of shopping malls will probably be the most visible mark of the AKP government in Turkey, a sign that consumers can borrow more. However, the rapid Chinese-style growth presents a set of daunting challenges for the authorities as they disregard workplace conditions and controlled urbanization to increase profits.

As the sprawling urbanization, coupled with booming construction sector, continue unabated, the dark and tragic face of this construction boom goes largely unnoticed. Ambitious contractors seek to maximize their profits by delivering their projects earlier than scheduled, some even ignore work safety regulations and fail to meet basic conditions in the workplace.

On Sunday, at least ten construction workers died when an elevator fell from the 32nd floor in a skyscraper in one of Istanbul’s most lavish neighborhoods.

With key elections coming up next year, it is highly unlikely that the government will prefer improving rights of workers

Mahir Zeynalov

According to the Istanbul Council for Workers’ Health and Work Safety, at least 272 construction workers have died since the start of 2014. The Turkish opposition claimed this week that at least 13,442 workers have died on the job during the tenure of the AKP government.

Tragic death

The latest tragic death of ten workers came months after the killing of 301 Turkish coal miners in the Western town of Soma, the most deadly industrial accident in Turkey’s history. Although the investigation into the death of coal miners continues, no one has been convicted yet and the authorities seemingly failed to enforce stricter worksafety measures.

The death of workers is only one side of the massive “collateral damage” the construction boom causes. The construction sector is the backbone of many emerging nations, triggering activity in scores of other industries. It fills up bank vaults and increases demand for other goods, from tables to microwaves. Banks push up consumers’ purchasing ability and businessmen seek a whole variety of ways to attract consumers, in all industries, from food to entertainment.

The construction boom also triggers rapid urbanization, increases population in metropolitan areas and makes cities places hard to live. Businessmen close to the government can conceivably easily purchase lucrative lands, even including environmentally protected zones, often failing to consider the city’s silouhette while building skyscrapers.

The issue of construction was also raised in the summer protests of 2013, sparked after the government decided to build a replica of Ottoman barracks and a shopping mall in a green area in Istanbul’s Gezi Park. What initially began as a modest environmental sit-in morphed into massive nationwide protests and riots. These protests, a large challenge to the government of then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seemingly failed to deter authorities to take into consideration cities’ urban plans and be sensitive to environmental degradation while granting construction projects to businessmen with close ties to the authorities.

In the past, the Turkish state had an tremendous amount of assets, from a telecommunications company to banks, but previous Turkish governments usually sought loans from international financial bodies in exchange for painful austerity measures and structural adjustments. The AKP government had instead started immense privatization projects, selling many sensitive companies to mostly foreign buyers. The program helped Ankara pay its debts, decrease current account deficits and invest heavily in infrastructure.

Construction boom

During the AKP period, the construction boom also revived many other sectors and boosted consumer demand, largely benefitting pro-government businessmen and satisfying the conservative base of the government. The AKP government owes most of its success to this rapid Chinese-style growth that seems to have ignored safety standards in exchange for earnings.

In my view, however, the three biggest challenges the AKP government has faced while it was in power came in the past year. All of them were directly related to the damages the construction sector caused. The first was the Gezi Park protests, fueled by environmental concerns. The second was a corruption investigation into pro-government businessmen. Erdogan and his government allegedly commissioned businessmen close to him and is reported to have funneled most of this money to his son’s foundation or purchased TV channels and newspapers. The third came in May, when 301 workers died in a coal mine disaster, due to a lack of life chambers.

The AKP government now faces two options: First, it could slow down growth, make urbanization harder, take into consideration the environmental concerns and improve workplace conditions as well as the rights of workers. Second, it could continue at the current pace, contain public criticism of its disregard for the lives of the poor working class and go to elections with high growth numbers and affluent businessmen backing it.

With key elections coming up next year, it is highly unlikely that the government will prefer improving rights of workers and puttig the construction frenzy into some order, which would definitely slow the growth. It would also alienate many businessmen who bankroll the ruling party.

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Mahir Zeynalov is a journalist with Turkish English-language daily Today's Zaman. He is also the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.