Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan opened İstanbul’s controversial new airport on Monday, a mega-project that recently saw a strike over poor working conditions and a disputed number of work-related deaths.
Some 10,000 workers went on strike on Sept. 14, with more than 400 detained by police. Since then the courts have ruled to arrest 31 of the detainees, including a union leader.
“Behind the glass and steel of President Erdoğan’s newest mega-project, 30 construction workers and a union leader are sitting in jail for protesting poor working conditions,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey director at Human Rights Watch in a written statement.
“The jailed workers should be freed, the criminal investigations against them and many others dropped, and workers unfairly fired for protesting should get their jobs back.”
According to a Cumhuriyet daily report in February, hundreds of workers have died during the construction project in work-related accidents; however, Turkish officials claim the number of fatalities is 37.
The workers complained about food and housing on the construction site, claiming that their rooms were full of bed bugs and fleas, which led a number of workers to quit.
They were also reportedly under pressure to finish the project as soon as possible in line with the wishes of President Erdoğan.
The opposition parties also criticized the project for claims of lucrative contracts and corruption surrounding the construction. Main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) deputy Aykut Erdoğdu said on Sept. 25 that private parties had reaped TL 32 billion ($5.78 billion) in ill-gotten gains from the project.
Located on the Black Sea, the airport will initially have the capacity to handle around 90 million passengers per year, but that number is expected to rise to 150 million by 2023, according to AFP. When finished, İstanbul’s new airport will be the fifth largest in the world.
Several world leaders and Turkish celebrities were invited to the opening ceremony, while opposition party leaders, including Erdoğan ally Devlet Bahçeli, refused to attend.
“The government advertises Istanbul’s new airport as the biggest in the world, but the prestige project has been marred by reports of accidents and arrests of protesting workers,” Sinclair-Webb said.
“It is imperative for the authorities to improve working conditions and investigate deaths and injuries rather than using the police and courts to stifle workers’ demands.”