The Right to Work for the Right to Life: Cultural Workers in Turkey
Author: Selda Dudu
September 14, 2023
Covid-19 impacted people all around the world. Millions of individuals were not allowed to leave their homes except for essential activities like grocery shopping or seeking medical assistance to prevent the spread of the disease. Certain groups, such as office employees, could work remotely from home, whereas frontline workers like doctors, nurses, and grocery store employees had to continue working onsite. Conversely, others, like cultural workers, faced challenges finding employment due to their reliance on collaborative work involving numerous human interactions and gatherings, which were severely restricted during the pandemic. In some countries, such as Turkey, this situation significantly exacerbated pre-existing economic issues.
The cultural industry has been a rising star in the Turkish economy since the 2010s, contributing significantly with a worth of 47.5 billion USD in economic activity, equivalent to over 6% of the Turkish national income (Şen, 2017). Notably, the success of a significant number of Turkish TV series played a pivotal role in this growth. Nevertheless, even prior to the pandemic, cultural workers in Turkey struggled with unfavorable working conditions and low income (Dudu, 2020).
Cultural workers, in general, share similar working condition characteristics with gig economy workers: elevated income insecurity, on-demand work, the prevalence of unpaid labor, short-term and project-based engagements, freelancing, long hours of remote work, intermittent employment (seasonal work), and juggling multiple jobs simultaneously (moonlighting). These work arrangements also apply to cultural workers in Turkey. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated their economic hardships as they encountered difficulties securing jobs, particularly impacting music workers among the broader cultural workforce in Turkey.
According to several newspaper articles (Oğraş Çolak, 2021; Şenocaklı, 2021), over a hundred music workers in Turkey tragically committed suicide due to economic hardships and poverty during the pandemic. This raises the question: What percentage loss of income pushes music workers to such extremes? The absence of statistical data focused on this issue has spurred research efforts, including our own. Associate Professor Evrim Hikmet Öğüt from Mimar Sinan University, music writer Özge Denizci, and I conducted a survey in 2021 to explore the working conditions and income levels of music workers in Turkey. This initiative led to the establishment of the Cultural Labor Platform in 2022, with its website currently under development through support from CultureCIVIC.
The findings of this case study, which are also applicable to other cultural workers in Turkey as per an ongoing investigation by the Cultural Labor Platform, reveal that music workers in Turkey experienced an approximate fifty percent reduction in their incomes during the pandemic (Dudu et al., 2022). In essence, losing half of their income reached a life-threatening magnitude for cultural workers in Turkey. Consequently, the COVID-19 crisis served as a reminder that the absence of labor rights can also jeopardize the fundamental right to life.
While music workers in Turkey put in 45 hours of full-time work per week (30 hours on stage/office and 15 hours behind the scenes), only a minority among them manage to earn sufficient income to sustain themselves and their families above the poverty line. Furthermore, the number of music workers unable to reach the minimum wage nearly doubled from 2019 to 2020 (see Graph 1).
Graph 1: Shares of Earnings of Music Workers in Turkey
The same investigation also revealed that despite the decline in their earnings, 86% of music workers were unable to access social assistance, and an equivalent proportion of them expressed dissatisfaction with their earnings. Moreover, even though 80% of music workers in Turkey derive their primary income from the music sector, it is common for them to hold secondary jobs, whether or not they are related to music; 70% find the need for a second job. The fact that 83% of music workers possess higher education degrees does not alter the prevailing working conditions or income levels.
Cultural workers engaged in other creative domains, such as cinema, visual arts, and performing arts, encounter similar economic challenges to their music industry counterparts in Turkey. It is evident that swift development of social policies is imperative to rectify the adverse working conditions and low-income scenarios prevalent in the cultural sector, issues that have been underscored and brought to the fore during the pandemic. However, more importantly, it should be noted that only a minority (if we return to our music workers' case, only 21%) can earn enough from cultural work to keep their families above the poverty line even before the pandemic in Turkey. Therefore, cultural workers are off their guard against any socioeconomic crisis due to the lack of social benefits and work rights.
 Cultural workers are categorized into three distinct groups by Casey (1999) and Eurostat (2019): “1) workers who have artistic occupations within the cultural industry, such as an actor working in a theatre company, (2) workers who do not have an artistic occupation but work in the cultural industry such as a technician working in a museum, and (3) workers who have artistic occupations but work outside the cultural industry such as a musician working in a bar.” (Dudu, 2020, p. 107).
 Please note that the minimum wage is less than the starvation line for a family of four. These thresholds belong to December of each year, determined monthly by Türk-İş (Confederation of Turkish Trade Unions).
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