Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 94

The latest employment figures released by the Turkish Statistical Institute (Turkstat) have reinforced concerns about the possible social impact of the slowdown in the Turkish economy.

At end-February, the official unemployment rate stood at 11.6 percent, up from 11.4 percent at end-February 2007. The official unemployment figures, however, only include those who are currently actively seeking work. When those who would work if it were available were included, the unemployment rate stood at 19.6 percent at end of February, an increase of 0.3 percentage points over 19.3 percent at same time in 2007.

A more significant figure is the rate of labor force participation. At the end of February the proportion of the population of working age who were in full-time employment stood at 45.9 percent, down from 46.3 percent in the previous February. The number of people in Turkey over 15 years old grew by 737,000 to 49.7 million in the year ending in February 2008. The total number of people in full-time employment, however, rose by only 104,000, suggesting that Turkey is falling far short of creating enough jobs to support its growing population.

The figures for unemployment in the 15-24 age group, showed an encouraging decline from 21.7 percent at the end of February 2007 to 21.2 percent this year. However, the figures once again include only those who are actively seeking work. Even the official figures suggested that unemployment among the young urban population rose from 22.6 percent to 22.9 percent during the 12-month period, while employment among the young in rural areas declined from 19.8 percent to 17.8 percent. The assumption is that many young people are moving from the countryside to the cities and that a significant proportion, particularly of females, are simply not looking for work. Overall, the rate of male labor force participation remained unchanged at 69.6 percent, while the rate of female labor force participation fell from an already very low 23.4 percent at the end of February 2007 to 22.8 percent this year (Turkstat News Bulletin Number 83, May 15, www.turkstat.gov.tr).

The release of the latest unemployment figures followed the publication on May 11 of an independent report by the Ankara Chamber of Commerce (ATO), which suggests that the even majority of those who are employed face severe difficulties in earning enough to support their families.

The ATO survey estimated that in 2007 a family of four required a total monthly income of YTL 665 (approximately $500), merely to buy sufficient food for a balanced diet. It estimated that YTL 2,092 (approximately $1,570) a month was needed to cover expenditure not only on food but also on basic items such as clothing, shelter and transportation.

The survey found, however, that 15.4 percent of the total population (approximately 10.9 million people) were living below what ATO defined as the hunger line of household income of YTL 665 a month. In total, 74.1 percent of the population (approximately 52.3 million people) were living below what ATO described as the poverty line of YTL 2,092 household income each month.

ATO Chairman Sinan Aygun dismissed the official figures from Turkstat, which suggested that only 539,000 Turks were living below the hunger line and 12 million below the poverty line, as misleading.

“These people represent the human resources that could enable Turkey to become a developed nation,” said Aygun. “But we can’t expect people who are unable to meet even their most basic needs, such as food, to be successful. If Turkish society is to progress, then the first thing that needs to be done is to rectify the unjust discrepancies in income distribution in the country” (ATO website, www.atonet.org.tr).

Levels of poverty and imbalances in income distribution are also likely to have repercussions for social stability and the continuing ideological battle between Turkey’s traditional secularist elite and the country’s increasingly confident Islamist movement.

“Virtually all of the rank and file of the terrorist organizations active in Turkey are drawn from the poorest segments of the population,” a security official told Jamestown. “It is not because they are poor but because the pressure to work to help support their families means that they usually have only a limited education, which makes it much easier for terrorist organizations to recruit them by filling their heads with extremist ideas.”

Since the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) first came to power in November 2002, there has been a marked increase in social assistance programs, such as the distribution of food and fuel to poor families. Some of the programs are run by the state or AKP-controlled local authorities. Many others are organized by Islamic charities and foundations, particularly those associated with the Sufi brotherhoods known as tariqah and groups such as the rapidly growing Fethullah Gulen movement. The majority of the organizations involved in such social assistance programs are firmly committed to non-violence. Nevertheless, they undoubtedly have a conservative agenda, and many regard providing assistance to the poor as a religious duty. In contrast, it is very rare to see organizations affiliated with the traditional interpretation of secularism in Turkey involved in the distribution of food and fuel to poorer members of the community. As the division in Turkish society between traditional secularists and Islamists continues to deepen, it is not difficult to guess on which side the recipients of social assistance programs are likely to be on.