A Brief Evaluation of Seasonal Agricultural Workers in Turkey


The presence of seasonal agricultural workers in Turkey can be traced alongside the development of capitalism in rural areas. Their stories, beginning with the cotton production in Çukurova, continue today throughout the entire country, now including the harvest periods of almost all crops. During this considerably long period, seasonal agricultural workers immigrated from a variety of cities and regions. For instance, immigration of seasonal agricultural workers took place from the villages of the Central Anatolia Region to the mountainous villages of the Aegean Region or to the plains where cotton is harvested. However, the 1950’s are the most pivotal point for the rural areas of Turkey. It is a very significant period in which the capitalist production structure declared its sovereignty in the rural areas, first with the start of the mechanization of agriculture, then by the introduction of more land for agriculture, the unequal distribution of agrarian loans among farmers and many other signs. The process has retransformed the production methods of rural areas as much as urban life as a result of the ensuing mass migrations.

The changes happening in agricultural production methods can be said to create a larger demand for a seasonal agricultural labor force, while those who could not take part in the mass migration to cities provided the source for the seasonal labor force. Those who carried this potential have been, however, the sharecroppers in the Southeast Anatolian Region. The data on the immigration to the cities between 1950 and 1970 display that the Southeast Region lagged behind in this area. Therefore, alongside the most striking social event of the mass immigration from the rural areas into cities, a less significant mass replacement from traditional sharecroppers to seasonal agricultural workers can also be mentioned. Beginning in the 1980’s and into the 1990’s, the nearly ‘obligatory’ migration from the Southeast Anatolian Region, has almost locked the migrants of this region into being seasonal agricultural workers (Çınar and Lordoğlu, 2010).

After citing these developments briefly, it can be easily concluded that; “The seasonal agricultural workers in Turkey, mainly from the Southwest Anatolia Region, are a populace of workers migrating every year all around the country to work for a couple of months. However, these temporary migrations of workers are not limited to only one place. Depending upon the harvest seasons of the agricultural crops, they move a few times.” (Akbıyık, 2008: 231; Geçgin, 2009: 15; Yıldırak et al., 2003). After their long journey, most of them return back to their homes, even if only for a few months, while there are also some who don’t return home for a couple years. An important number of seasonal workers are always on the move, depending upon the harvest season of different crops.

The life of seasonal agricultural workers can be explained by evaluating some of the stages of their work periods. The problems start with the high rates of unemployment in the home cities of the workers. Low employment opportunities and the unequal distribution of land in the rural areas of Southeast Anatolia considerably reduces the means of livelihood for its inhabitants. Hence, research and interviews with workers show that they designate unemployment in their hometowns as their biggest problems. Therefore, the limited opportunity for employment of the inhabitants of the region makes seasonal agricultural work the only option. People who prefer this work start their trips each April and May. These trips are the most well known aspects of the workers’ lives in the country as a result of the media coverage of their traffic accidents. Following the increase in accidents, the previous travel by truck has begun to decrease due to more frequent controls. Nowadays, workers continue their similarly dangerous trips by loading their beds, rugs and kitchen utensils onto minibuses carrying a weight well over their capacity.

Another important problematic area is accommodations once they arrive to their workplaces. Workers spend almost all their time in the open air. They make use of nylon or pieces of cloth as tents where they sleep and keep their possessions. The tent compounds created by workers are open to all natural conditions, with limited access to water and there is no toilet or bathroom (Özbekmezci and Sahil, 2004). In addition to these negative conditions, the tent compounds are, in fact, never “temporary” because workers spend a considerable amount of time during the year under such alleged temporary circumstances by moving from one place to another.

The poor state of their living conditions is another factor for exposure to exclusion in their work places. The afore-mentioned accommodation circumstances of workers create pollution and a bad smell, as well as a bad environment. For local inhabitants, these tent compounds could be places to avoid or even to be wiped out if possible. However, a more significant dimension of exclusion is usually experienced because of ethnic origin, and sometimes, religious beliefs. Actually, seasonal agricultural work is a place of confrontation for different groups in terms of ethnicity, race and religion, not only in Turkey, but also in other countries. As seen in examples from other countries, this confrontation has the potential to create a tense situation. Nevertheless, in Turkey, it is well known that seasonal agricultural workers become a party to ethnic conflicts for various reasons and, as a matter of fact, such conflicts could grow to such an extent that they receive media coverage. It is not usual that this state of exclusion results in a clearly conflicting state, because workers and local inhabitants in their work place need each other. Both sides cannot take the risk of totally breaking off their connections. However, the attitudes of exclusion and the expression of the differences hidden in daily life increases the differences and makes communication more difficult in this situation where ethnic identities are re-created through temporary encounters. Ethnic identities re-created under such circumstances form more acute boundaries. Additionally, some workers who are openly exposed to teasing or verbal abuse do not want to return to the same region again.

We do not find a better situation once we move away from the social relationship towards labor relations. The labor relations of seasonal agricultural workers are composed of intermediaries, who are called “messengers” or “head uncles”, and the employers. These three way labor relations are actualized completely informally. Employers do not have to take any responsibility for the workers. The only thing they do is show them a space for their accommodation. Their only consideration in doing this is to allow workers to reach the gardens where they work as quickly as possible. Seasonal agricultural worker and employer relations are not considered within the scope of the current Labor Law. Therefore, these relations are transferred to the Code of Obligations, whose purpose is not to protect the worker. However, neither the Code of Obligations nor the Labor Law includes regulations concerning the specific problems of seasonal agricultural workers. For instance, workers have an accommodation problem. This problem becomes much more serious when considering the fact that workers tend to migrate with their whole families, including elders, babies and small children. Yet, both the Code of Obligations and the Labor Law are currently far behind in regulating such circumstances.

The fact that the workers cannot legally demand any of their rights increases the need for intermediaries when they encounter problems during their work periods as a result of their weak position against employers. Workers ask for help from the intermediaries concerning their needs during the work period. The intermediaries make the decisions on everything about work conditions of workers, including even the most important decisions, such as wage negotiations with the employer. They arrange the travel for workers, their shopping at their place of work, bringing them to the health centers when necessary and many other arrangements. Even though it seems that the assistance from the intermediaries is making things easier for the workers, all of these strengthen the dependence of the workers on the intermediaries. The worker cannot find work without consulting the intermediary, and cannot handle any problems in his workplace by himself. Creating such a dependence and its degree of control is one of the definitions of the intermediaries’ work. The intermediary has created limitless ways of generating income for himself apart from the commissions taken from the employer and the worker.

The services of the intermediaries, playing a big role in the exploitation of the labor of seasonal agricultural workers, still continues without any controls. Even though “The Regulations of the Intermediaries in Agriculture”, put into action in 2011, tried to regulate the agricultural intermediaries’ operations, only a small number of intermediaries were registered. Even the services of those who have been registered could not be regulated. However, instead of trying reform the institution of intermediacy on a legal basis, which continues to exist because the government does not regulate the employer-employee relations or the living conditions of workers, it is more reasonable to have regulations to eliminate the conditions that generate this institution.

In order to find solutions for the specific situations affecting the seasonal agricultural workers, in 2010, the Prime Ministry issued Circular No. 6, concerning the itinerant seasonal agricultural workers. The circular is an important step and attempt at describing and solving the specific problems of seasonal agricultural workers. However, due to a clear attitude from above about its solutions to the problems, it is quite open to criticism. The circular only pointed out the main problems. The solutions for the problems are, however, far from being realistic and taking into consideration the main reasons for the existing problems. For instance, the real problem during trips, in which 25 people get on a minibus or in the back of a truck with an original capacity for 12, is not caused by the insufficiency or lack of traffic inspections. Instead, these dangerous trips arise rather from the poverty of seasonal agricultural workers who are not able to afford their own travel expenses. Therefore, the solution to this problem should be different from “increasing traffic inspections and necessary controls for the safety of vehicles and traffic”. Similarly, after suggesting solutions for accommodations, which is another important problem, the following item does not seem realistic when the poverty level of the seasonal agricultural workers are taken into consideration: “Drinking water and disposal water, as well as electricity supplies at the site, are to be provided to the users by network installation, site drilling, water tank/truck, power line or generator supply facilities by the special province administrations and utilization fees are to be taken from the users”. There is almost no possibility for these families to afford such an expense while working for extremely low daily wages and while they are also keeping their expenditures at a minimum during the time they work in order to save money from their work for the time they are not employed.

However, the most significant part of the circular is Article 10, which states that the local security forces will be customarily patrolling through the workers’ residential areas day and night for security purposes. The language that is used for such highly sensitive encounters, especially in an official statement, should be constructed more carefully. The circular does not clearly state what it aims to achieve by “patrolling for security purposes”; therefore, it remains open to debate as to why security is featured so strongly. In addition, such a regulation could make the communication problem more difficult in cases where it is already quite problematic between the seasonal agricultural workers and the local inhabitants, and differences can be deepened or negated.

In conclusion, the limited approach to the problems, such as traffic accidents, child labor, accommodations, the conduct with an alleged supposition that seasonal agricultural workers would create a security problem for the locals deem the circular problematic. Still, after this circular, some projects were implemented in some cities with the aim to improve the accommodation problems of workers and the right of education for their children. However, their numbers are limited and each one of them does not have the same content and regulations. Clear results can be observed in only a few places. The establishment of sites with electricity and water connections, schools, tents, mobile toilets and bathrooms are being discussed. Even though they continue, with some problems, these efforts are promising. The biggest concern is how all activities performed within the scope of the project will be financed once it finishes. Therefore, it is important to produce more permanent solutions and to include such regulations within the social policies of the state rather than in projects.

However, the problems do not seem to be solved only through regulations on their living conditions and work relations realized by the state. Social exclusion and the increase in ethnic and religious tension postpones the solutions. In the legal provision of basic rights, such as education, housing and health care, it is perhaps more important that the personnel who enact these rights have the correct attitude in providing such services as education, health, security, and justice (Çınar and Lordoğlu, 2010). Indeed, the fact that some workers report that they do not go to medical institutions in the areas they work due to the attitude of the healthcare staff could be cited as an example. In conclusion, even when there is an efficient legal protection, and basic rights are effectively provided on paper, it carries the risk that they would be subject to personnel who have internalized the social perceptions of this country.


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