Interview Mesut Çeki: courier workers and the Couriers’ Rights Association in Turkey

The following interview of Mesut Çeki, the president of the Couriers’ Rights Association, was conducted by Selma Aybal and Ecehan Balta. The association’s activities can be followed on its website (link here)

Q: You’ve conducted field research as the Couriers’ Rights Association. First of all, congratulations. Internationalist Standpoint wanted to discuss the problems and methods of the couriers’ struggle in Turkey with you. Thank you for accepting our request. First of all, what is the current situation of motorcycle couriers in Turkey? Can you give us a brief overview of their numbers, their main areas of activity and their main problems?

MC: It’s not easy to generalise about the hundreds of thousands of motorcycle couriers, and the outcome can be misleading. That’s because there is no longer a single type of motorcycle courier. It was easier to talk about courier work in the early 1990s, when motorcycle couriering first appeared in Turkey. Back then, there were couriers who carried documents from one customs office to another or delivered medicines from pharmaceutical warehouses. Over the years, however, the number of couriers, the sectors in which they operate and their working methods have all increased. In the last 4-5 years, the situation has escalated to the point where hundreds of thousands of couriers are working in different industries and under different types of employment.

This means that there isn’t just one type of courier; there are many types of courier work. There are couriers who deliver food and groceries, small shop items and electronics; couriers who deliver documents and medicines; couriers who carry gold, money and spare parts; couriers who carry textile samples; couriers who deliver clothes on a try-on, pay-on-delivery basis; and couriers who transport a wide range of products and goods. There are also different types of courier work, including those who are on a payroll, those who set up their own courier business, seasonal or short-term workers, those who deliver parcels when they are available during the day, and registered or unregistered workers. Within this diversity there are, of course, common issues among couriers, as well as issues specific to the sector and type of employment.

Despite being one of the most critical parts of the service sector, courier work is not yet protected by legislation. It lacks the status of “very dangerous occupation”. This has led to a situation where anyone can work as a courier without a “certificate of professional competence”. Social security, worker safety and health training are exceptions rather than the rule. Esnaf (small business), or self-employed couriers are constantly increasing. What used to be a 10-12 hour day has now become a 14 hour day. Immigrant workers continue to be employed for below-average wages with no social security. We are faced with a working regime in which motorcycle courier accidents/murders are increasing daily.

In summary, motorcycle couriers, like workers in many other sectors, need safe working conditions, a decent income and social security to live a decent life.

Q: In your report titled “An Overview of Motorcycle Courier Organisations; Identified Problems and Solution Proposals related to Courier Work” there were sections on “What should public institutions do?” and “What do couriers expect from employers?” What do couriers expect from people who want to support them?

MC: In our “2022 Motorcycle Courier Deaths Report”, published in January 2023, we also addressed the responsibilities of public authorities and employers in relation to what we defined as homicides disguised as accidents in the case of courier deaths. In defining the issues, we believe it’s important to discuss the “chain of responsibility”. Lawmakers, employers, the media, customers and others will all have varying roles to play in finding solutions to courier problems. The most important expectation from the public who want to support us, as with all motorcyclists in traffic, is “empathy”. Even small gestures, such as noticing motorcycle couriers on the road and not writing notes like “fast”, “urgent” or “immediate” when placing orders, can mean a lot of support for couriers. Recently, some customers have become more sensitive to couriers, writing phrases such as “we’d rather you arrive safely in 30 minutes”, “be careful courier” or “no package is worth more than your life” in their order notes.

There are also some places where motorcycle couriers are not allowed to go. In these places, couriers sometimes have to walk distances of 300 metres or more under the scorching sun in summer and in the cold in winter. Residents of these areas can put pressure on the site management to lift the ban on motorcycles.

Of course, couriers occasionally call for boycotts against companies that engage in bullying and low pay, expecting public support by harnessing the power of consumer choice at such times.

Q: What are the reasons for the low number of female couriers and how do service providers and consumers view female couriers?

MC: The number of female couriers is increasing every day. However, the percentage of female couriers in the motorcycle courier profession is still quite low. Transport is a predominantly male field where male egos and language are constantly reinforced. Even in traffic, the presence of women, whether in cars or on motorcycles, is often not acknowledged. They are subject to belittling, derogatory comments and harassment in various forms. Being a woman in traffic on a motorbike, where it is easy to go unnoticed, is even more challenging. The lack of female couriers can be attributed to the limited number of female motorcyclists, the masculine nature of traffic and the association of motorcycle courier work with men. However, we can say that this situation is changing year by year. The number of companies employing female couriers is increasing, especially in the corporate sector.

When we spoke to female couriers, the most common problems they mentioned regarding working conditions were related to the patronising attitude of some bosses and supervisors because of their gender, cases of harassment in some warehouses and harassment by some drivers on the road. However, they didn’t report any specific attitudes from customers based on their gender.

Q: How was your association founded? What are your aims and objectives?

MC: The Couriers’ Rights Association was founded on November 4, 2002, by a group of motorcycle couriers. The objectives of our association, as stated in our constitution, are as follows: our association conducts research on courier issues, identifies problems, prepares reports and raises awareness. We work with couriers, associations, unions, foundations, relevant national and international institutions, academics and legislators to address the issues that complicate the working lives of motorcycle, bicycle, car and pedestrian couriers. In addition, we engage in activities related to occupational health and safety, with the aim of having motorcycle courier work classified as a “Very Hazardous Occupation”. The association was founded to promote legal protection and respect for the rights of couriers and to raise awareness of the rights and responsibilities of couriers.

Although our formation took place in November 2022, we preferred to introduce our association to the public in January 2023 with the publication of our “2022 Motorcycle Courier Deaths Report”. This was the first Motorcycle Courier Deaths Report published in Turkey, in which we discussed the causes of courier deaths, the chain of responsibility and proposed solutions. The report received extensive media coverage, sparked public debate and was the subject of a parliamentary inquiry.

In September 2023, we published the “Report on the Views of Volunteer Couriers in Earthquake-Prone Areas”. In this report, we collected the recommendations of couriers who use their motorcycles in the field for disaster preparedness in 15 provinces and shared the report with relevant institutions. More than 20 provinces distributed this report through numerous couriers.

As stated in our charter, we aim to continue awareness-raising activities, improve field reporting and expand cooperation with labour organisations, especially courier organisations.

Q: How can the organisation of self-employed couriers be facilitated and what are the steps needed to be taken?

MC: The situation of self-employed couriers and the challenges they face were detailed in our report “An Overview of Motorcycle Courier Organisations; Identified Problems and Solution Proposals related to Courier Work”. We compiled recommendations from representatives of 25 courier organisations we interviewed. The organisation of self-employed couriers, who mostly work in precarious and unorganised conditions, requires agreement on a common understanding among courier organisations. Two different approaches emerged: ” self-employed couriering should be abolished” and ” self-employed couriering should be regulated”. It is necessary to discuss self-employed couriering directly with self-employed couriers and to design organisational models according to their needs. It’s quite a challenge to organise self-employed couriers who are often kept away from worker organising by employers who call them “partner couriers”. It’s not very likely to organise them in a union or association without their active participation. We believe that holding widespread ” self-employed Couriers Discussing” meetings and collecting the proposals in a pool will reveal the organisational models of self-employed couriers.

Q: Is there a plan for motorcycle couriers to come together under a single umbrella organisation to fight collectively?

MC: Motorcycle couriers have so far practised various forms of organisation, such as associations (federations, confederations), unions, collectives, committees and, more recently, chambers of couriers (professional association). However, the most preferred form of organisation is the association. In our recent research we found that 69 associations, grouped under different federations, have tried to unite but have failed to come together under a single confederation. Six unions claiming to work in the courier sector are affiliated to different confederations and have not managed to work together. Other forms of organisation, such as collectives and committees, have also failed to overcome the political structuring attempting to influence courier work. The chamber of couriers is new and operates with the support of only a few associations and federations.

In this context, we don’t think that there is a suitable environment for a single umbrella organisation. Based on observations and information from the field and the community, we can say that there are no plans for a single umbrella organisation in the foreseeable future.

Q: Is it possible to cooperate with motorcycle courier organisations in other countries?

MC: Of course it is possible. We are in solidarity with Kurye Haber (press agency for couriers), which reports on courier protests and actions in many countries around the world. Last year there were courier strikes and protest convoys in dozens of countries. Looking at the demands, there are many similarities. Low pay and job insecurity are universal issues. We also know that multinational and global online companies employ thousands of couriers in different countries. It is possible to create a global courier movement, starting with couriers working for the same company in different countries. Developing networks between motorcycle courier organisations can facilitate common interests, common agendas for action, solidarity actions and the organisation of a global courier strike against multinational corporations.

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