October 23 press briefing announcing cultural worker hunger strike in Turkey (still via Yavuz Yilmaz/Youtube)

Cultural workers in Turkey are set to go on hunger strike in protest of their unemployment and its endangerment of the country’s vulnerable cultural resources. In reaction to the government’s broken promise to hire 50 workers among the thousands of unemployed cultural heritage professionals, the Association of Culture and Art Workers (Kültür Sanat Emekçileri Derneği, or KSED) is taking desperate measures.

If the government does not show any sign of increasing cultural sector employment — and, as yet, it does not — at 1pm on November 9, museum employees, archaeologists, art historians, restorers, and visual artists will gather in Sıhhiye Abdi İpekçi Park in Ankara and begin to starve themselves. Students in those subjects, who face the prospect of mass, long-term unemployment, will participate in solidarity.

In a news release, KSED President Hızır İnan admonished successive governments’ “negligence” (ihmal), which the association considers to be so severe as to be undermining Turkey’s constitutional obligation to protect cultural heritage.

In an explanation provided to Hyperallergic, Binnur Çelebi, vice president of KSED and member of the governing council of the Archaeologists’ Union (Arkeologlar Derneği Yönetim Kurulu Üyesi) noted that, in the 1930s, nearly 300 specialists and officials had been employed in around 30 museums, while, by the 1990s, fewer than 500 specialists were expected to run more than 300 museums.

A total of 17,683 people were employed by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism in 2013; by contrast, the Religious Affairs Directorate had 141,911. Çelebi argued that, alongside 300,000 police and 700,000 soldiers, the statistics revealed the budget’s “military and religious-conservative structure” (militer ve dinsel-muhafazakâr yapıs[ı]).

At a press briefing on October 23, People’s Republican Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, or CHP) MP Haluk Ahmet Gümüş put those numbers in stark relief in a national context. Those 17,683 culture and tourism workers are now responsible for nearly 13,000 registered cultural and natural heritage sites, more than 300 museums and 135 ruins. Gümüş described it as a “national waste” (milli bir israf) that about 4,000 archaeology and art history students graduated every year, but only 5 or 6 cultural heritage workers were hired.

But the finance minister’s response to the skilled employment crisis, wherein there is 30% graduate unemployment, is that “the state is not obliged to give work to every university graduate” (devlet her üniversite mezununa iş vermek zorunda değildir). As the contrast between cultural and religious hiring statistics suggest, certain graduate professions’ unemployment rates are far higher than others. KSED’s press release noted that it had “got[ten] no response for months to requests for a meeting” (randevu taleplerine aylardır yanıt gelmemiştir), which was why it had felt the need to step up its campaign.

When Çelebi warned that, if hiring rates were going to be the same in 2014 as before, she would go on hunger strike on her own, the head of the personnel department of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism (Kültür ve Turizm Bakanlığı Personel Daire Başkanı), Ahmet Yılmaz, reportedly told her, “in that case, start your strike tomorrow” (öyleyse sen yarın grevine başla). Now the association is set to commit itself to that challenge.

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Sam Hardy

Sam Hardy is an archaeologist who researches the illicit trade in antiquities, the destruction of cultural property, and cultural heritage labour at times of crisis and conflict. He teaches in Rome and...