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Turkey: Lidl supplier accused of mistreating unionized staff

The workers have been protesting against poor working conditions for almost six months

The workers have been protesting against poor working conditions for almost six months

For more than five months, workers at the agricultural firm Agrobay at Izmir in western Turkey have been taking to the streets. Many complain of inhumane working conditions — including imposed unpaid leave, bullying and even being denied the right to go to the toilet. Some say they were unfairly dismissed without receiving any compensation.

The company has a direct link to Germany as it is one of the largest suppliers to the supermarket chain Lidl. With almost 12,000 branches in 30 countries and sales of around €115 billion ($125 billion) last year, Lidl is the largest discount grocer in the world.

Agrobay, which has been in business since 2002, supplies most of the tomatoes bought in German stores. It has an annual cultivation capacity of 20,000 tons, making it one of Turkey's largest agricultural producers.

The company mainly exports tomatoes and chili peppers to the United Kingdom, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands and Russia, as well as Germany, according to its website.

Workers also protested in recent months in front of the consulates of Germany, the UK and Russia, where police were accused of using undue force to disperse demonstrators. Agrobay also sued the workers who rallied in front of the German consulate, accusing them of "damaging trade relations with Germany."

Germany is Turkey's largest trading partner and the largest importer of Turkish products.

Workers refused toilet breaks

Agrobay is certified by Eurepgap, a globally respected quality assurance and certification system for agriculture. However, Turkey media outlets have for several months highlighted breaches of those standards by the firm, citing statements by ex-workers.

Over two days in August last year, 39 employees were laid off — two office staff and 37 manual workers. Thirty-four of them were women. Shortly before their firing, they organized themselves into Tarim-Sen, an agricultural union.

One ex-Agropay worker, Ayten Yavuz, told DW that she registered with the union on August 19 and lost her job three days later. In Turkey, it is illegal to be fired because of trade union activities.

"I worked in the plant care department, as did my other colleagues who were laid off," Yavuz recalled. "The working conditions were very bad. We weren't even allowed to go to the toilet. Since the distance between the greenhouse and the toilets was long, the bosses were annoyed because we wanted to go."

Workers were constantly insulted by their superiors, she said:

"The chief engineer kept telling us, 'Even my five-year-old son is smarter than you. Are you all stupid?' We had to endure such insults."

Women were seen as 'cheap labor'

One woman who was on her period was even denied a break, Yavuz said. Female workers were often ordered to carry out tasks that were intended for men.

"Until the evening we shoveled sand and lifted 80-meter long steel rods. These men's tasks were also on the shoulders of us women. We had to do all this because the company saw women as cheap labor. These tasks cost a lot more when men do them. But the company thought: 'We have women who work for minimum wage. They can do these jobs.'"

Barriers to finding new work

According to the union, 34 workers were fired under a rule that allows firms to dismiss employment contracts of those who engage in "immoral acts." This includes things like theft or even "the worker abusing the employer's trust" or "exposing the employer's secrets through his conduct."

If a person is dismissed under this rule, he will not receive any compensation and will not be allowed to receive unemployment benefits. And it will be harder for him to find a new job — because he is accused of immorality.

Umut Kocagoz, president of the Tarim-Sen union, told DW that the laid-off workers are having difficulties finding new jobs.

"They didn't do anything immoral," he said. "Although they didn't steal anything, they are officially accused of theft." He added that the company had not insured its workers, had covered up workplace accidents and did nothing to combat the many occupational diseases.

Lidl is 'partly responsible'

Kocagoz blames Lidl for the workers' negative experiences. In Turkey, he says despite the rights on paper, it takes far too long for any wrongdoing to be successfully challenged. Germany could have protected the rights of these workers within the framework of the new supply chain law, he added.

A new German law, which came into force in January 2023, requires companies of a certain size to take human rights and environmental regulations into account in their supply chains both at home and abroad. So this would include Turkish firms like Agrobay that trade with Germany.

"These tomatoes are produced in another country at lower costs by cheaper workers, and in the process, the rights of these workers are violated," Kocagoz told DW. "We demand that the Lidl company respond to this take an active stance on the issue and comply with the provisions of the German Supply Chain Act."

Lidl confirms investigation

Lidl told DW that it takes "any indications of human rights violations very seriously" and is currently holding an internal investigation into the allegations at Agrobay. The supermarket chain cited the ongoing probe for not answering our question about whether the company is in contact with its Turkish supplier.

In a statement, Lidl said it is working intensively to "minimize the negative effects in the supply chains, to effectively remedy legal violations and to use our influence for positive change."

German companies are required by the new law to identify rights violations in their supply chains, take measures against these violations and check their implementation.

If the improvement measures cannot be implemented, the law can ensure that any deal between the company and the supplier is terminated.

Can the supply chain law help?

Lidl's response states: "It is correct that, based on a complaint, we have initiated an investigation in accordance with the provisions of the Supply Chain Due Diligence Act, with regard to possible violations of protected legal positions of workers at our indirect supplier Agrobay."

Agrobay and the Bayburt Group, an Ankara-based conglomerate to which Agrobay belongs, have not yet responded to DW's questions.

Meanwhile, union leaders are trying to negotiate with Agrobay, but the company has so far refused a meeting.

"We demand that the justification for the layoffs be corrected and that the workers receive their unpaid wages," said Kocagoz.

Yavuz, one of the laid-off workers, also hopes that the negative reports about the company will help ensure that workers are treated better in the future.

"I hope other bosses and engineers learn from our fight so that they don't treat the workers so badly," she told DW.

This article was originally published in German.