Vigil for Conscience and Justice

İstanbul, 2012

The Workers' Families Searching for Justice came together for the first time after an explosion in a small fireworks factory in Istanbul's Davutpaşa district on January 31, 2008. They started a struggle to seek justice for the 21 victims killed in the blast, calling for a trial of those responsible, including government agencies that had failed to protect the workers. For 35 weeks, they met at Taksim Square in İstanbul regularly at noon once a week on Saturdays. Although the court sentenced public officials to prison in what should have set a precedent, their sentences were deferred, so the families continued to pursue justice.

The families also continued their fight by visiting relatives and friends who had lost loved ones in other workplace accidents to demonstrate solidarity. Determined solidarity encouraged families in similar situations, more families began to join them, and eventually, the families kept vigil every first Sunday of the month at Galatasaray Square (near to Taksim), beginning on May 20, 2012. 

With backing from these families, the Support Group For Those Seeking Justice published an Almanac of Workplace Homicides, which said that in 2017, at least 1,947 and in 2018, at least of 1,872 people had died in the workplace. On the other hand according to reports from the Worker Health and Work Safety Assembly (İSİG), in 2016, at least 1,970; in 2017, at least 2,006; in 2018, at least 1,923; and in 2019, at least 1,736 workers died while working. The Covid-19 pandemic that began on March 2020 brought worker's deaths in Turkey to a different level. Despite social-distancing restrictions and a “stay at home” campaign, laborers forced to continue to work, this made Covid-19 “a working-class illness.” İSİG reported that at least 1,400 workers caught Covid-19 and died between 2020 and 2022. İSİG also said that in 2020, a minimum of 2,427 workers lost their lives either due to illness or workplace accidents. In 2021, there were 2,170 such fatalities. These deaths are generally due to an attempt to maximize profit at the cost of worker safety. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), nearly 1 million workers die at work each year. ILO says that of these deaths, about 600,000 could have been prevented in a safe workplace environment.

In Turkey, several mass workplace deaths have occurred, harming society's conscience and sense of justice. On January 31, 2008, 20 workers lost their lives due to the explosion and fire in Davutpaşa in Istanbul; 130 people were injured. On March 11, 2012, a fire in the tents that served as the sleeping quarters of workers building the Marmara Park Shopping Mall in Istanbul’s Esenyurt district burned 11 workers to death. During the Torunlar Construction Company’s project in central Istanbul, 10 workers died when the elevator they were traveling on fell 32 stories on September 6, 2014. On May 12, 2014, 301 miners lost their lives and 162 were wounded in an underground fire at a mine in Soma held by the state Coal Works of Turkey and operated by the private Soma Holding AS. No senior state officials were ever held responsible in legal proceedings concerning these accidents. An exception is the case following the death of seven workers in an explosion that took place in Hendek in Sakarya province on July 3, 2020. The lawsuit that followed, those responsible, including the factory owners, were given prison sentences ranging from 6 to 16 years.

The Vigil for Conscience and Justice is a remembrance and memorialization event, held the first Sunday of every month in Galatasaray Square in Istanbul by the Workers' Families Searching for Justice. The aim is to raise awareness among the population at large, to show the struggle of families who have lost their loved ones and to build a social memory about the dead workers' lives and their memories. The families emphasize that workplace fatalities are not simply “accidents,” but should be defined as homicides and they also believe deaths due to occupational illnesses arising from poor working conditions should also be counted requiring justice be done.

The families who keep vigil in same place for weeks were banned from Galatasaray Square on their 74th gathering on September 2, 2018. Since then, they have been forced to continue the vigil on nearby Tel Street in front of their association's (Bir Umut Derneği) office, holding up pictures of their lost loved ones and informing passersby about the ongoing court cases.

After the disaster in Davutpaşa, families and volunteers made condolence visits. They continue to do so each time there is a new workplace fatality. They shared their experiences and the difficulties they faced, including during legal proceedings. They scanned the media for workplace crimes to publish booklets. Those who lost family members at an explosion at Ankara’s Ostim-İvedik, the collapse of the Van Bayram Hotel, the fire at the Marmara Park Shopping Mall, the mining disaster at Kozlu and the gas poisoning at Milas-Güllük AKFEN facilities have joined them. Erkan Keleş, a worker at the BEDAŞ power company; movie set workers Selin Erdem and Eren Eroğlu; Uğur Çavdar, who worked at a fertilizer plant; İhlas Holding employee Serhat Alkurt all died on the job, and their families have joined the vigil. Families have also begun to follow each others' lawsuits and carry on their legal battles in solidarity.

The families often use the slogan, “Without mourning the worker, there can be no struggle for rights!” They want to see April 28th declared the Day of Remembrance and Mourning for Loved Ones Lost in Workplace Homicides, holding marches, collecting signatures and lobbying all parties in parliament. The origins of this day began in Canada, when it made April 28 Workers’ Mourning Day, and many other countries followed suit, including in the United States, Britain, Argentina, Brazil, Peru and Portugal. The day is important because it was the day on which officially registered that responsibility for workplace disasters lies with the owner and employer.

The Vigil for Conscience and Justice continues not only to honor the victims, but so that it never disappears from the public agenda. In fact, this struggle has made a significant number of gains on account of its activities. Although most of the court cases resulted in impunity, some public officials had to appear before the court, and “workplace accidents” started being referred to as “workplace homicides.” Families whose members were injured or died at the workplace started demanding that those responsible be tried in court. During labor protests, workers not only demand “more pay,” but the amelioration of conditions at their place of work, often shouting, “We do not want to die.” Families try to help workers at their demonstrations and bring their demands to the vigils and the almanac.

To make their voices heard, the Vigil for Conscience and Justice collaborated with other parts of society. Inspired by the vigil, Fatih Pınar's Not an Accident, But Murder documentary attempts to make the voices of these families heard, in Turkey and abroad. The families also seek to make connections elsewhere in the world. They seek to share their experiences and form bonds of solidarity with those who have suffered similar tragedies. 

The Do Not Forget Workplace Homicides website provides news and information about workplace homicides, as well as incidents that have occurred during the vigils. Last but not the least, the Almanac of Workplace Homicides is an important resource, is prepared with the assistance of the Support Group for Those Seeking Justice since 2012 based on ISIG reports. Emphasizing that had the necessary precautions been taken for workplace health and safety, these workers would still be alive, it keeps the memory of workers alive, rescuing them from being just a statistic.

One of the most significant problems in this endeavor is that penalties given by the courts fail to satisfy families who have lost loved ones and their supporters' pursuit of justice. In addition, police have not allowed the vigil nor a statement to the press at Galatasaray Square since September 2, 2018, on the grounds that the area was closed to all such activities, forcing it to move to outside of its office. On April 28, 2022, the group gathered at Bakırköy Square and demanded that April 28 be declared the Day of Remembrance and Mourning for Loved Ones Lost in Workplace Homicides.

Another challenge is that political pressure on the press has affected support for the vigil. Initially, journalists were assigned to cover each vigil, but the shrinking of critical media in recent years has meant significantly less coverage. Since the 53rd vigil on August 7, 2016, families and volunteers have assumed the role of the journalist. At the association after that vigil, families started thinking about what to do to make their voices heard and came up with the idea of citizen journalism and have educated themselves in this area. The importance of public mourning made them intent on maintaining their public presence, rather than being squeezed into the small side street by their office. So they continue to think about how they can lift the ban on the square, discuss what other avenues to use - or create - and make their voices heard.