With its recent track record in mind, Turkey is proving that it is one of the leading new building and ship repair countries in the region – totalling 72 shipyards with a deadweight tonnage capacity exceeding 4 million tons. Here, exclusively for ShipBuilding Industry, Caglar Coskunsu and Burak Ozdemir from Istanbul-based Cavus & Coskunsu Law Firm discuss the current situation facing the considerable number of subcontractors working in Turkish shipyards and the consequential health and safety issues. They also highlight the role of a strong supporting union and government infrastructure.

Turkey is an emerging shipbuilding country; its shipyards have recently won new orders for building conventional container vessels and bulk carriers, as well as for small and medium-sized complex offshore supply vessels, fishing vessels and tankers. When compared to the world’s leading shipbuilding countries, China, South Korea and Japan, Turkey may have fewer orders but it can hardly be called idle. Quality and technology have greatly improved over the years. This has led to an increase in building orders for ship repairs and special types of vessels.

Turkish shipyards closely co-operate with the Turkish Navy in developing new generation frigates for national navy vessels. A substantial research and development programme is required to develop these new frigates. New Turkish navy vessel export opportunities abroad may evolve from knowledge gained from this programme. The first generation nationally built navy vessels have already been delivered to the Turkish navy. It’s clear that Turkish shipyards play an important role in the Turkish economy.

This column focuses on shipbuilding and ship repair labour issues in Turkey. Due to work incidents in recent years, Turkish shipyards have been in the spotlight. Surprising when you consider Turkish shipyard statistics based on the number of employee working hours show fewer accidents when compared to Chinese, South Korean, Japanese and Singapore shipyards. However, regardless of Turkey’s better record, all shipyards should aim at avoiding any kind of shipyard accident.

Turkey has ratified most of the International Labour Organisation conventions and recommendations. The Ministry of Labour and Social Security has implemented various rules and regulations concerning workers’ safety in shipyards. It also started a project under the name ‘Work Health and Safety Inspection of Shipyards’ in 2007. So far, as part of this project, Ministry of Labour and Social Security inspectors have carried out regular inspections. It’s possible that as a result of this project new regulations may be introduced. However, the ‘Work Health and Safety Inspection of Shipyards Project’ report by the Ministry of Labour and Social Security states that government shipyard inspections are not sufficient, shipyards and interested parties will have to approach safety as a priority by cooperating together in preventing Turkish shipyard work accidents.

Whereas Turkish shipyards are well organised under the Turkish Shipbuilders Association, labour unions are not. Estimates are that only 10 percent of the workers in the shipbuilding and ship repair industry are actually labour union members. However in Turkey, most shipyard workers are subcontracted from third party companies. This large number of subcontractors may limit the possibility of establishing a common ground for the necessary organisation or cooperation between interested parties for implementation of regulations regarding workers’ health and safety issues.

Labour Unions heavily criticise the existence of subcontractors. However, trends in orders for new building and the shipping industry market in general, mean subcontractors are still required. It would be unacceptable that all work in Turkish shipyards was performed by subcontractors. Although most Turkish shipyards have high internationally recognised standards   and are vetted by major classification companies, subcontractors unfortunately may not. Subcontractors should receive the same training and work under the same high health and safety standards as the rest of the Turkish shipbuilding industry.

Much research has been done on classifying fatal accidents as well as on the educational level of workers having suffered from occupational hazards. This research alone proves that the shipbuilding and ship repair industry finds accident prevention important. Academic research indicates that employee carelessness is the major cause of accidents. Employees do not always follow health and safety instructions even when protective gear is available.

Consequently, it is worth noting that weak labour unions make it harder for shipyards to improve their safety culture. Labour organisations should receive support since they focus on developing safe organisational and operational standards which the shipping industry needs. In the future, when the global shipping market crisis ends, the work now carried out by subcontractors may be taken over by shipyards as long as it falls within the scope of a conventional shipyard organisation.

In conclusion, it is fair to say that Turkey maintains high legislative standards and has well-organised shipyards. However, the above suggests that there is room for making work environments even safer. Since labour unions do not yet carry enough weight, it will be up to the Ministry of Labour and Social Security and the Turkish Shipbuilders’ Association to educate and train workers by arranging appropriate seminars.