Child labor in Turkey

February 16, 1996|By Jonathan Power

ISTANBUL, Turkey -- Some things have changed as Turkey has moved from Third World country to the makings of a powerful industrial economy, banging on the gates of Europe as surely as did the armies of the Ottomans 300 years ago.

The last time I was here you'd sit in a restaurant by the Bosporus and as you finished them off you'd throw your empty wine bottles out the open window into the fast-moving current. Things are tidier now.

Tidier, too, is the child-labor situation. There are health and welfare safeguards that did not exist on my last visit. But it is still child labor.

In factories on the outskirts of Istanbul, children are a good quarter of the work force, cutting, sewing and gluing shoes, boots and sandals for the export market. The hours are long and the poisons of the glue hang heavily in the air.

Warning notices

The labor inspectorate posts notices warning the workers of the serious health consequences of breathing in the fumes. The more enlightened factory owners, prodded by the inspectorate, provide sealed containers for the glue and some even have installed air-flues.

Still, as long as secondary schooling is not compulsory, 12- and ++ 13-year-olds, especially those from large families, will continue to be compelled by their parents to work in factories like these to earn enough for their bread and tea.

Surprisingly perhaps, given the economic pressures, addiction and criminality among these children are rare. Islamic teachings on family life and its responsibilities seem much more rigorous here than they are in many Christian, Hindu or Buddhist societies, if one judges by either the social behavior of working children or the very small number of children living homeless on the street.

The impulse for humanity in Turkey is strong. You see it in family life, you see it in the concerned work of the labor inspectorate and in the mobile child-health clinics manned by local doctors. But the economic and social forces ranged against them all are formidable.

Finely felt injustice

Developing countries the world over confront the same dilemma. No one who has read Charles Dickens on child labor -- ''a little world in which children have their existence, where there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt as injustice'' -- needs to be told that the industrialization stage of development is a bitter passage. Getting it right, while minimizing the pain for the poorest, demands skillful political and economic leadership. Turkey, for all its significant progress, does not yet have it.

But how many Third World countries do? South Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan, Singapore, the Indian state of Kerala, Barbados, Costa Rica and perhaps Chile. The list is short, indicating both how difficult it is to achieve a benign society and that it can be done.

Ending child labor -- along with fair treatment of the Kurds -- are Turkey's challenges if it wants to enter the European Union and become, as in NATO, its only Muslim member. This is what will determine whether modern Turkey succeeds where the Ottomans failed.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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