Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan opened Istanbul’s third airport amid a labour dispute that has led to the jailing and criminal investigation of 31 workers, according to Human Rights Watch. The international rights group said the workers, including a union leader, had been protesting working conditions at the airport construction site.

Union representatives told Human Rights Watch that an unrevealed number of workers who joined the protest were promptly dismissed from their jobs and that the airport construction site is being heavily policed to prevent any further demonstrations.

“Behind the glass and steel of President Erdogan’s newest mega-project, 30 construction workers and a union leader are sitting in jail for protesting poor working conditions,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey director at Human Rights Watch. “The jailed workers should be freed, the criminal investigations against them and many others dropped, and workers unfairly fired for protesting should get their jobs back.”

The protest began on September 14, when workers put down their tools, presented a series of demands about poor working and living conditions, and began a one-day demonstration. Their concerns included the high number of accidents and deaths during three years of construction at the vast site.

That protest rapidly grew and, according to gendarmerie reports seen by Human Rights Watch, a crowd of 2,000 protesting workers swelled to 10,000. The report said that workers damaged property on the site and shouted slogans. Gendarme and police units used teargas and water cannon to disperse them.

Executives from Istanbul Grand Airport (IGA), the company in charge of airport construction, which will also manage the airport, convened a meeting with workers’ representatives, who presented their demands. They included immediate payment of overdue wages, an end to arbitrarily docking wages, and an end to partial payment of wages in cash to avoid the full social security contributions. Workers also demanded improved workplace safety to prevent work-related deaths and better living conditions, nutrition, and healthcare.

On September 16, the Istanbul governor announced that 401 workers had been taken into custody, but that 275 of them had been released. Most were arrested the night after the protest at their dormitories on the building site. Others were detained when their IDs were checked as they arrived at the building site the next day.

Of the 43 workers taken before a court on September 19, 24 were placed in pretrial detention pending completion of a criminal investigation, and 19 were released under judicial controls, requiring them to sign in at a police station twice a week and barring them from overseas travel.

Further arrests followed. On October 5, Özgür Karabulut, head of the Construction Workers Union, Dev Yapı-İş, was arrested over his speech to the workers on September 14. He is now among the 31 workers still held in pretrial detention in Silivri prison.

The prosecutor has accused them of disrupting the freedom to work, violating the law on demonstrations and public assemblies, damaging public property, resisting police, and possessing weapons.

“The government advertises Istanbul’s new airport as the biggest in the world, but the prestige project has been marred by reports of accidents and arrests of protesting workers,” Sinclair-Webb said. “It is imperative for the authorities to improve working conditions and investigate deaths and injuries rather than using the police and courts to stifle workers’ demands.”

Symbolic launch

As reported by FRANCE 24, the airport is one of a number of mega-projects under Erdogan’s rule. It was initially scheduled to fully open on October 29, but construction has been marred by delays and the workers’ strike.

“I hope that Istanbul Airport will benefit our region and the world,” Erdogan said at the lavish opening ceremony attended by numerous world leaders including Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani of Qatar and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. The inauguration is largely symbolic as the airport will not be fully open until the end of the year.

The first flight from the as-yet unnamed airport will be to Ankara on November 1.