Turkish tourism workers given little protection during pandemic

Tourism - which accounts for about 12% of the economy - is expected to stall badly in Turkey due to the coronavirus pandemic, boosting already elevated unemployment figures.

Work delayed for estimated 2.5 million Turks in tourism sector

Ankara's wage protections criticised for falling short

Pandemic could delay Turkey's overall economic recovery

ISTANBUL - Hamza Aksoy was supposed to start waiting tables in Turkey's Mediterranean tourist hub Antalya this month. But the hotel has not returned his calls since the coronavirus hit, leaving him like millions of others out of work with little protection.

Turkey, where infections have surged to nearly 1,900 in two weeks, has rolled out some wage guarantees that economists, unions and opposition politicians say do little for employees, especially seasonal workers in the hard-hit tourism sector.

Some 2.5 million Turks will not begin working as they had planned in the next couple of months as the sector - which accounts for about 12% of the economy - delays its spring opening, according to the Revolutionary Tourism Workers' Union.

Another sector group estimated some 550,000 hotel workers alone are seasonal which would mean they will miss out on a government measure that compensates employees' wages.

Tourism is expected to stall badly now the outbreak has slammed Europe, its main source of visitors.

Economists say the resulting layoffs will boost unemployment, which has been elevated since a 2018 currency crisis, and could delay an overall economic recovery if too many workers are left without state-guaranteed income.

"It will have a tsunami effect on the labour market" whose severity is hard to predict, said Seyfettin Gursel, an economist at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University.

"It will be a grave mistake to wait for the official data because then it's too late."

Last week, President Tayyip Erdogan announced a $15 billion support package and unlocked stop-gap payments for those whose work hours fall by at least a third. Ankara also postponed loan payments and lowered taxes for affected sectors.

Erdogan said "the economy, employment, commerce and production" would be the focus.

On Wednesday the government said it loosened conditions so that more workers could access funds. Still, seasonal workers and others who have not already worked 60 days at their current employer remain excluded.

How to survive?

Aksoy, 39, said he would not receive the funds and predicted Turkey's tourism sector would take years to recover. "I see many people around me with kids and families, with rent to pay. It is not clear how they will survive," he said, adding he fears "societal traumas" if the unemployed are not supported.

The coronavirus outbreak is expected to lead to a sharp global recession. It hit Turkey just as its economy was roaring back from recession on strong domestic demand.

But with the local death toll up to 44, and authorities cautioning people to stay at home to stem the spread, Ankara's hopes of reaching its 5% growth target this year are all but gone.

The unemployment rate ticked up to 13.7% in the three months to January and has remained near a decade high for a year.

Mustafa Yahyaoglu, head of the Revolutionary Tourism group, which is one of the main unions in the sector, said Ankara should ensure all of those unemployed due to the outbreak can benefit from the stop-gap pay and access an unemployment fund.

Otherwise workers will not "maintain their health and meet their basic consumption needs at this crisis moment," he said.

Osman Ayik, head of the Tourism Sector Council under Turkey's Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges, said capital on hand at hotels will only last up to six months so even current staff levels will be hard to maintain.

Finance Minister Berat Albayrak has suggested domestic demand could compensate for the drop in foreign tourists this year. It was unclear what other steps the government might take, though a source with knowledge of its plans said more are under consideration to prevent layoffs.