A boss-free textile collective rose from the ashes of a failed company where workers were not paid for months. Following years of struggles with former bosses and co-workers, Özgür Kazova strives to create a new and equitable labor model, where the work of women and men is valued equally.
Hugging the upper reaches of Istanbul's Golden Horn, the district of Eyüp is known first and foremost as a holy place. It was named after Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, a confidant of the Prophet Muhammad, who is believed to be buried in the spot where the 15th century Eyüp Sultan Mosque triumphantly flanks the water. A cable car ascends above the shore, passing over a vast cemetery before arriving at Pierre Loti hill, named after the French novelist who whittled away his time in the late 19th century enjoying the cascading view. Eyüp is a popular place for Istanbulites to go out and enjoy time away of the urban craze.
Further inland lies the quarter of Rami, an industrial jungle where wholesale egg sellers share walls with multi-story textile factories. Though close in proximity to Eyüp, which ranks among the most visited areas of Istanbul, Rami is among its most ignored areas. But in one indistinguishable building atop a hillside overlooking a valley of urban sprawl, a revolutionary labour model is preparing to spread its wings after several years of struggle against all odds.
It started in the beginning of 2013 when Mustafa and Ümit Somuncu, owners of the Kazova textile factory, announced that the workers would be taking a week-long leave. Before that, they had not been paid for months. And at the end of their week off, instead of going back to their jobs and getting paid, the 94 workers were all unceremoniously canned.
“We demonstrated three times a week. Wednesday we'd be in front of the factory, Saturday we'd be in Taksim, Sunday we'd go to the boss's house,” said 43-year-old Serkan Gönüs, one of the laid-off workers.
While this was happening, the Somuncu brothers absconded with materials and machinery from the factory and located it in the central district of Şisli. The workers responded by constructing tents in front of their former place of employment. This lasted for just over 70 days, coinciding with the Gezi Park protests that rocked the country for weeks.
The workers' struggle became enmeshed in the protests, which were framed around the demand for consensual urban decision making and the right to a liveable, breathable city. The workers received no small amount of support from like-minded civil society initiatives, prompting them to ponder the possibility of setting up a boss-free collective.
“I used to be someone that admired the state. But this country is a place where the rights of workers are not protected at all,” said 36-year-old textile worker Aynur Aydemir, who became politicised during the process.
Still, the spirit of the protests became a distraction for some of the workers, who were more interested in attending meetings and demonstrations than getting back to work. An extended period of squabbling sliced the group of 12 apart, creating two separate factions.
The dissenting group – who demanded high salaries and other conditions that could not be immediately fulfilled – eventually faded away, while three workers: Gonüş, Aydemir, (the lone female member) and Muzaffer Yiğit, constitute the tiny collective that today is Özgür Kazova (Free Kazova), producing high-quality jumpers, t-shirts and tote bags made from either 100% cotton or wool.
“Jumpers without masters” is the group’s triumphant slogan. Only three members remain from the initial 94 Kazova workers (many of whom quickly scrambled to find jobs elsewhere). They are fewer, but retain the satisfaction of getting to use the machines impounded from their old factory, which was legally acquired by Özgür Kazova early last year.
The long legal battle, internal strife and heavy costs associated with establishing the new factory only deepened the resolve of the trio to establish a collective-based labour model, one which rests on the pillars of gender equality and mutual solidarity.
“Women, to an extreme degree, get crushed in this sector,” said Aydemir. The general picture of women in Turkey's labour force is not much better. Women make up just 30 percent of the country’s workforce, according to official figures. A startling 29.2 percent of female labourers work unpaid jobs in family businesses, where they are often forced to work full-time hours or beyond, while just 1.1 percent of women in the workforce hold employer positions. A major segment of the female workforce is confined to seasonal agricultural labour, which is usually informal. Women often work grueling, hot shifts alongside their children for minimal pay and no security.
A strong, independent female worker is not something the government views favorably. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently said that a woman who chooses to work rather than have children is “denying her femininity.” Low female participation in the labour force is a product of the patriarchal values that stubbornly persist in Turkey. A large segment of women who do work (such as those in the agricultural sector) come from the poorest section of society, where bare necessity trumps established gender roles.
Aydemir’s family was initially opposed to her involvement when the struggle began shortly after the workers were laid off. “My older brother, my mom, everyone was against it. They said: ‘You are a wife and a mother and you shouldn’t be involved with such a thing, what about the future of your children’,” Aydemir recalled. But now Aydemir is probably the only female factory textile worker that can say she is her own boss.
“There is no other example in Turkey like this. Women have not yet been seen within such a struggle. Here, men and women do the same job. There is no 'you're a man/you're a woman' type of mentality. We do everything together,” she said. Gönüş nods in confirmation.
Aydemir recently returned from a festival in Paris organised to promote international workers' solidarity. She was invited to attend and share the story of Özgür Kazova's struggle, and how it can serve as inspiration for other factory workers.
Despite having shipped orders to several European countries, and having their products available at a number of shops in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, Özgür Kazova has yet to reach the level of sales it needs to comfortably get by. Gönuş and Aydemir said they both rely on financial support from their families, and that they have only been able to take around TL 400 ($135) home over the past couple of months. All things considered, they remain resolved in continuing, and expanding the operation.
“It looks like two more friends will soon be joining,” Aydemir said.
In another likely first for a Turkish textile factory, Özgür Kazova has hosted concerts on location, and Gönüş and Aydemir say they are open to organising more events in the future.
In the quarter of Rami, packed full of textile and other manufacturing facilities with long hours, dire conditions and lower than low pay, the Özgür Kazova collective hopes that neighbours will get emboldened by their story.
“The factory across the street is watching us. If they see me working happy for six hours and taking the weekends off, if they see me taking my wife and kids to the theatre once or twice a week, if they see me taking six weeks of vacation a year… This is what we're doing this for,” Gönüş said.
Paul Benjamin Osterlund