The engagement of migrant workers into the local economy. Interview with Dr Emre Eren Korkmaz, University of Oxford

The New European interviewed Dr. Emre Eren Korkmaz, post-doctoral researcher and Newton International Fellow at University of Oxford’s International Migration Institute, on the topics of social inclusion through entrepreneurship and the role of trade unions in supporting workers’ rights, especially those of immigrants of Turkish origins.

Dr. Korkmaz, could you briefly explain what is the focus of your research?

I am a post-doctoral researcher at University of Oxford’s International Migration Institute. I am conducting two research projects. The first deals with the participation of Turkish immigrant workers in the labour market and how they represent themselves in trade unions and work councils, while the second focuses on the employment of Syrian refugees in the Turkish textile-apparel industry.

How does integration into the labour market contribute to promoting social inclusion?

Integration into the labour market is key to promote social inclusion. People should work and invest to contribute to the society they live in and build their future autonomously. So, the participation in the labour market is a significant step for refugees and immigrants. There are two main forms of labour market integration: the first is waged employees and the second is the self-employment along with other forms of entrepreneurship. This integration can happen via formal or informal economy. For instance, Turkish immigrants generally migrated to Western European countries via legal ways, as guest workers in the past, or thanks to family reunification processes or as refugees, and then they worked and invested in formal economy. On the contrary, refugees in Turkey generally work or invest in informal economy, as there is a bureaucratic process to obtain work permits.

To promote social inclusion, I think that formal working relations should be supported. For the ones operating in informal economy, there should be a smooth transition to the formal economy through the simplification of the legalisation process. However, working or investing in formal economy alone are not sufficient for a successful social inclusion: the type of working relations should be taken into account as well. If a person is working in precarious conditions, without the necessary social security, or if a businessperson is running his/her own business in an unfriendly business environment, it can be more difficult to promote social inclusion. Decent, fair working conditions with equal opportunities are necessary.

What has been the role of SMEs founded by Turkish migrants in fostering social inclusion?

Immigrants from Turkey in Western Europe form a distinct and dynamic community with huge enthusiasm in investing and running their own businesses. For instance, you may find so many Turkish restaurants on the high streets of almost all cities and towns of Europe. There are also medium and large scale investments in many industries, including food and textile and these are not solely ethnic enterprises, they serve to the whole society.

Both in manufacturing and services, Turkish entrepreneurs use their social advantage to get familiar with various cultures and national-regional expectations. More specifically, since Turkey shares borders with the Middle East, the Balkans and the Caucasus, Turkish people know how to meet the taste and needs of a large and multicultural range of consumers even abroad. This is important, because such features encourage Turkish SMEs to pursue an open and diverse approach towards their businesses. They are outward-looking and innovative, and prefer to serve a large market instead of limiting themselves to a narrow ethnic market.

What has the role of local trade unions and of trade unions of the country of origin been? Do you see competing agendas between the countries of origin and the host ones on trying to “control” the migrant workers?

Particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, during the guest-worker period, local trade unions were the only organisations that brought immigrants together with local workers and supported the rights and demands of immigrant workers. Immigrant workers could benefit from the services and opportunities provided by trade unions, represented themselves within these unions and such support had a positive role in the permanent stay of immigrants in the host countries. However, in the last decades, as a result of the general decline in the membership figures of trade unions and formation of strong immigrant associations, trade unions have lost such significance for the immigrant workers.

There is no competing agenda between trade unions of host and home countries. On the contrary, Turkish trade unions give importance to strong relationship with the Western European trade union movement. Also, Turkish trade union officers in Western European trade unions support workers’ movements and the demands in Turkey as a sign of international solidarity. For instance, the German metal workers union (IG Metall) and the German service sector union (Ver.di) have organised hundreds of thousands of Turkish members in Germany which are stronger than some trade union confederations in Turkey.

Have you noticed a greater “entrepreneurial propension” of immigrants in host countries?

Immigrants are known for having more entrepreneurial spirit than the locals. If you give the same amount of money to an immigrant and a native, the native would probably spend it for personal needs, while the immigrant would use it to invest into a small business. However, as I mentioned above, friendly business environment and equal opportunities are significant for immigrant entrepreneurs to expand their businesses.

Given the critical political situation we are living in, nowadays it is almost inevitable to speak about migrants without mentioning refugees as well. In Turkey, what has been done in order to promote refugees’ social inclusion? Can we Europeans learn something from it?

Turkey currently hosts the largest number of refugees in the world with approximately 3.5 million refugees and 3 million of them are from Syria. As a consequence of civil wars and ecological crisis, we witness a large movement of refugees from Africa, Asia and the Middle East and many countries are affected by such movements: for example, the bordering countries undertake the largest burden of the crisis and most of them, including Turkey, have their own economic and political problems. Therefore, they need international support, which is currently not sufficient.

In Turkey, the general situation is not white or black. It is important to acknowledge Turkey’s efforts to host refugees and that the authorities collaborate with local and international agencies and NGOs to provide basic services to refugees. Society in general also supports government’s open-door policy to refugees. However, nobody expected that the civil war in Syria would continue for many years, so authorities have begun to give more importance to analyse the situation from a developmental perspective, instead of only focusing on humanitarian assistance and they aim at simplifying the regulations to formalise working and investment conditions of refugees.

It is disappointing that anti-immigrant and anti-refugee political movements are gaining strength in Europe, and refugees who flee war zones are not welcomed in general. EU member states also do not fulfill their promises to support and host refugees. Therefore, support and solidarity towards refugee-hosting countries should be accompanied by both collaborating to achieve peace in countries like Syria and welcoming and hosting refugees by opening new legal channels.