In a conversation with Education International Osman Işçi, of the Turkish union Eğitim Sen, shared the experience of educators on the ground and stressed the importance of international solidarity in responding to the devastation.
On February 6th, Türkiye was struck by a devastating earthquake that left thousands dead and injured, destroyed hundreds of schools, and disrupted education for millions of students. Education International (‘EI) and its members worldwide responded to the devastation by sending messages of solidarity and through an Urgent Action Appeal mobilised to assist member organisations in Türkiye and Syria.
“When this huge tragedy happened, I personally was in Ankara. It was six in the morning when I got the first call from a friend of mine informing me about the earthquake. I was safe, but my family lives in the affected region and I lost 11 members of my family in the city of Adiyaman,” Işçi recounted.
Eğitim Sen has offices in all affected provinces and “we lost hundreds of our members. We are still trying to verify their names and also whether they are alive, because some people were rescued from the ruins and wreckage. We are trying to find out where our members are now.”
One of the first things the union did in response to the earthquake, was to set up a response committee, with representatives from unions in all sectors, to provide emergency aid and plan for post-disaster recovery. The union also sent out a circular to international organisations, including EI, the European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE), and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).
Eğitim Sen members on the ground immediately checked for safe places to stay and helped meet humanitarian and basic needs. They also monitored education policies in the country and opposed the government's suspension of education, stating that education is a basic need and fundamental public service. The government suspended in-person education in the ten affected cities, but Eğitim Sen believes this was not the appropriate response, especially given that the Ministry of National Education has adopted policies that affect the whole country and took this decision without consulting or involving education unions and teachers on the ground.
Eğitim Sen is advocating for dialogue with teachers, administrative staff, support staff, and civil society organizations, as they are best suited to make decisions about education in the affected areas. The union is also working to provide aid and support to members affected by the earthquake, and has set up a solidarity fund to help members and the larger community.
Işçi explained that right after the earthquake they sent out a circular to colleagues at the international level, particularly EI, the ETUCE, the ITUC and the European Trade Union Confederation ETUC and similar other global confederations, such as Public Services International or the International Transport Workers’ Federation.
On the second day, Eğitim Sen sent colleagues to the field to collect firsthand information: “We asked our teacher members to see what is happening on the ground and to report back if schools are safe, if students are safe, or if our colleagues are safe, and what is happening regarding public services”.
Sustaining the education system
When the government announced that there would be no education in-person in the ten affected cities, Eğitim Sen was adamant that “you cannot put aside education. Education is a basic need and also a fundamental public service.”
The union is concerned that these measures may be motivated to curtail any dissent or protest that may come from students or teachers as the criticism to the government’s response mounts. “The Minister of National Education organised a meeting which Eğitim Sen attended. We shared our concerns with the Minister directly. Unfortunately, he did not pay attention to our recommendations This concern also extends to the state of emergency declared by the government which among other things limits the activities of organisations responding to the tragedy.
Governmental decisions made overnight, without proper consultation
For Işçi, the issue here is that “the government made such decisions overnight without consulting trade unions, without consulting civil society organisations, without consulting teachers or, for example, preliminary education experts, or finance or infrastructure experts”.
Işçi insisted that “there should be options, and all these decisions should be made through dialogue, because we are the teachers, we are the administrative staff, we are the supporting staff, we know best what is happening on the ground. This is the only way.”
Next solidarity actions
Işçi explained that in addition to the emergency first response, the trauma of the surviving communities also needs to be addressed and rebuilding should be done with a sustainable and comprehensive approach. Stressing the need to think about how to rebuild the education sector in a more resilient way, Işçi agreed that “we can learn from Education International or the ETUCE based on experiences in other countries. We can learn from the international community to see what we should do. This can be achieved through solidarity, because no public institution can share experience and exchange views as we do.”
Işçi concluded “We are volunteers to do our best for our communities, no matter where they are, because we belong to the same family. This is the labour union family.. This tragedy is too big for us to respond to it alone as a union, but the term union itself means we stand together. We have been experiencing the solidarity that is in the DNA of the trade union movement thanks to the efforts of our colleagues from the International trade union movement, particularly Education International and the ETUCE.”