Workers at SOK in Turkey are fighting back against illegal and unsafe working conditions imposed by the supermarket chain during the coronavirus pandemic.

After a temporary curfew in Turkey was lifted on 26 April, ŞOK, which employs 29,000 workers in over 7,000 stores, increased the length of shifts to 14 hours a day. Turkish labour law limits daily working time to 11 hours, including overtime.

SOK workers immediately launched a social media campaign with the hashtag #YETERŞOK (#EnoughSOK) to demand regular working hours, as well as better occupational health and safety measures to protect workers from Covid-19.

SOK has since reduced working hours but workers are worried that once a new three-day curfew on major cities ends on 3 May, the extended working hours will be reinforced.

UNI Global Union’s Turkish affiliate, Tez Koop-Is, is campaigning to organize SOK workers so they can benefit from the better conditions found in unionized supermarkets in Turkey, such as Carrefour and Metro. 

Tez Koop-Is President, Haydar Özdemiroğlu, said:

“The Covid-19 crisis has intensified exploitation in the non-union supermarkets. The workload, working hours and occupational risks have increased. We are calling SOK workers and all other commerce workers to join our union to stop wild exploitation, to ensure occupational health and safety; and to get better rights and pay.”

Workers at SOK, which is fiercely anti-union, are under immense pressure and fearful of being infected by coronavirus. Some workers are even forced to wear plastic bags on their hands as there are no gloves available.

A worker at SOK, who spoke anonymously to UNI, revealed:

“I have told my manager that I had a chronic disease and was advised by my doctor not to work. He said, ‘Nothing will happen to you, you will be fine’ and he didn’t even accept my demand to use my annual leave. Turnover has doubled with the pandemic. Customers are more aggressive, and it is impossible for us to control them given the fact that we do not even have enough number of workers to meet the increasing demand. We cannot even take breaks.”

Workers are also calling for SOK’s home delivery service to be stopped due to the toll it is taking on staff.

“Even though we are already understaffed and overwhelmed, the company started to offer home delivery after the pandemic. Home delivery is not a part of our job but we are forced to provide this service as well. We do not even have necessary equipment and vehicles to deliver,” said another worker.

“My colleagues who are delivering goods to the apartments are afraid of getting infected,” said a SOK worker. “We do not feel safe. I have debt, I do not have any other chance but to work. If we ask for better conditions and pay, we are told there are many unemployed people to replace us and we are free to go.”

UNI General Secretary, Christy Hoffman, added:

“The coronavirus pandemic cannot be used as excuse to bully and abuse employees. Supermarket workers are putting their lives on the line to provide essential food and goods to the Turkish people. SOK’s contemptuous behaviour towards its staff must stop, and workers must be allowed their fundamental right to organize and bargain for better, safer, working conditions.”