With its growing status as a cultural mecca, Istanbul has been able to mine the talent pool of some of the world’s largest cities, bringing in top talent from all sectors of business, including architects, English teachers and artists.
Istanbul is a magnificent puzzle and it has captivated the world for years. In this new era, the thing that attracts people to New Istanbul, is known as the attraction and the distraction. The problem is that many employees leave with a sour taste in their mouths, vowing never to return. That attitude has trickled down from throughout all sectors of business and it has reached a boiling point that demands to be addressed. Resident visas, work visas, healthcare coverage, insurance and a plethora of other issues have by and large been ignored for decades….
For every one honorable business in the city and country, there are literally hundreds more that prey on the dreams and wallets of workers both near and far. But it is the new, burgeoning middle class of foreigners that bear the brunt of this. In certain circles, one would do well not speak of it, unless they lose their jobs or their place among Istanbul’s elite. For a culture that takes great pride in having no shame, there is plenty to be shameful of, judging by the comments collected from both Turks and foreigners alike.
Turkey has a few other cities of note (Ankara, Izmir, Antalya, to name a few) but there are more millionaires and wealthy people in Istanbul for a reason. It’s not only the place to see and be seen. It’s their Los Angeles, New York, and Paris all at once, offering the glitz, glamor, and duality of old traditions and new agendas that other cities in Turkey cannot compete with. It’s also the place where Turks can come with their money from whatever industry, and hide it and not report any extra earned income to anyone. In a country that prides itself on Allah and religion, the dark side of greed reigns supreme.
Turkey is on the cusp of greatness – it has been said many times in various travel magazines and guides. All it needs, according to those that have traveled there over the last few years, is one major event for the world to see them on an international stage, and just like Berlin had in 2006 with the World Cup, things will quickly change. But the direction of that change could be devastating to their infrastructure, particularly in the city of Istanbul, where there is no safety net for foreign workers.
A large number of the yabancı in the city have no worker’s permit, since their companies don’t provide them, nor do these companies particularly get pressed to procure them for their employees. Many foreigners have come to accept that it is do or die in this city of approximately twenty million – depending on whom you ask. For everyone not accounted for, there are stories of how they were lost. But these stories have fallen on deaf ears in the past.
The Plight of Performers vs. Promoters
360 Istanbul, Supper Club Istanbul, XL and many more venues are known for producing some of the biggest events in the city. But at what cost? These clubs are considered the premiere clubs in this country. They employ hundreds of workers, locally and abroad. But there are only whispers about their practice of non-payment for a reason. Turkish people fear to rock the boat and foreigners depend on their money to pay their bills and pay for their own medical care.
When contacted for statements on their practices, none responded and the lack of response is one of the primary concerns for those that live here, according to those interviewed for this report. There is a reason why most international performers worth noting – Madonna, Rolling Stones, etc – perform all throughout Europe, but fly over Turkey and head to Asia, where contracts are in place and respected. In Turkey that is usually not the case. Pop icon Grace Jones performed in Istanbul for the first time in her storied career a few years ago and she was welcomed by Turkish fans, who had never seen a force like hers before. They may never get the chance to see it again.
hip hop legend Kurtis Blow
The public demand for hip-hop and R&B factors heavily in Istanbul and Turkey as a whole. In fact, Kurtis Blow, one of the godfathers of the hip hop community, performed there and opened in front of one of the largest crowd of hip-hoppers ever. But fittingly, it was a logistical and financial debacle from beginning to end, myself being an eye witness. The very club that brought him there – 360 – was blamed for several incidences of non-payment, late bookings, and the usual name-pointing that is associated with bringing top tier entertainment to the city. The club that brought Kurtis Blow there – Booty – closed only a few months later, without a trace of the formidable acts that were lined up to follow his performance. In many instances, those that choose to fight for their rights are forced to lie in bed with their perpetrators in order to eat.
My own experiences as a booker in Istanbul left an indelible impression and what many performers told me and that I discovered is that in Istanbul, once they build up a following, create a fan base for a club, and bring in revenue, the club owners bring in someone at a lower rate, forcing the hand of the very group that brought them a following in the first place. With so many venues and so many artists, there is always someone willing to work below scale or without proper paperwork if approached. In a city with over 5,000 clubs, this is par for the course in Istanbul and several performers have received the same treatment at the hands of some of the biggest venues in the city. When asked to respond to these allegations, there was no comment.
They want the best that the world has to offer in terms of artistry now and are quite open to it, contrary to the opinions of people that live outside of Turkey. Turkish companies pay for advertising to announce foreign stars’ arrivals for publicity and revenue, but there is no follow-up on the true atrocities being waged on the workers on and off the stage. What many Turkish businesses don’t want to do is compensate performers accordingly, and their practices are not going unnoticed.
Many promoters, when asked, respond that they have heard about Istanbul as the new mecca, but are leery of booking their talent there for fear of non-payment. The corruption is off the charts in a city that sits on several fault plates. Ironic, since it all could come tumbling down in an instant if things continue at the current rate. For many years, Turkey was hopeful of joining the European Union. Initially, most Turkish people wanted to join the European Union and then reality set in. With their history of human rights, unlawful practices, and lack of accountability, the tide turned and that dream was dashed and then buried.
The only way Turkey could ever hope to enter the European Union would be by dramatically changing their infrastructure to protect the people in every way – something about which the government has not been progressive enough.
Teachers Learning a New Lesson
As in many countries overseas, a lot of the foreigners in Istanbul teach a language as their main profession. This is a lucrative career path for many people living outside their native land. In Istanbul, this is usually not the case. Most teachers in the city have to face hurdles upon hurdles to get paid – often forcing the hands of schools every month to receive their hard earned liras. Several I interviewed have used several tactics to procure their salary: sit-ins, social media blacklists, alerting their embassies, and more. All one has to do is find the disgruntled groups based in Istanbul that have banded together online to name the large number of institutions they have blacklisted for lack of payment.
It is but one of the ways employees there have learned to protect themselves from shady businesses, many of whom will close and re-open somewhere else, leaving employees high and dry. And in a further twist, Turkey’s leading papers – from the Huriyet to the Gazette, are not helping either. The media in Turkey rarely covers these issues, leaving it primarily a topic of conversation on the streets, with many insistent that it receive the attention it truly deserves.
A Dissection of Culture and Circumstance
The scope of this expose is far-reaching – from the United States to Australia – as Istanbul has called upon foreigners to bring their talents to their country. The problem arises in how they are treated once they arrive. Many teachers note that when teaching Turkish children, the kids have a tendency to blatantly cheat in front of the teachers, so intent they are for the right answer. This cultural problem goes deeper than just a test in a classroom. It is part of a culture that wants to always be right, no matter what it takes to get there. Cheating is seen as acceptable, especially when a yilbanci is involved. Non-Muslims are not considered sacred in many Turk’s eyes, which makes the practice of stealing from them acceptable in the culture.
Some foreigners that have been in Istanbul for years have taken matters into their own hands, forming their own businesses and forcing Turks address the pressing issues at hand instead of denying their existence. Several foreigners responded for this expose, many of whom wished to remain anonymous for obvious reasons.
One in particular has lived there for nearly twenty years, relocating from America and was quite opinionated about her time living in Turkey. She has seen the city change dramatically since her arrival there, for better or worse. Through her own business, she has seen first-hand the corruption, bribes, and government’s shady dealings that make it especially difficult for foreigners to get ahead no matter how hard they work. She noted verbal agreements that you cannot trust and contracts that are ignored.
Unlike many countries, Turkey has no true middle class. There are the extremely, dizzyingly rich, and then on the other end of the spectrum the utterly downtrodden and poor. The foreigners make up the only real middle class in the country. In a way, the city depends on them for balance, but yet, imbalance remains.
Legally, many business in Istanbul are playing a game of bait and switch, bribing officials to get talented workers into the country with no permits or visas to speak of. The practice is so common, that many have commented on seeing the police or other officials in the clubs receiving bribes in plain view. In an interesting turn, Turkish artists cannot seem to find the support due them by their own people. Conversely, foreign businesses grumble about being underpaid for their services if at all. Few Turks vocalize their discontent when it comes to these practices for fear of retribution. Whether or not it is ingrained in them or conditioned is open to much debate in clandestine circles.
Prime Minister Erdoğan
Several artists interviewed for this piece noted how they’ve seen first-hand how businesses hire talent, increase their profile and audience, then cast them aside in lieu of cheaper talent. When it happens, only whispers are spoken, for the Turkish mentality does not question openly such practices, yet they are fully aware of them. Times are changing, however, as foreigners seek to stake a claim in a city that is feeding off of them, like parasites to an open flesh wound.
This expose was nearly two years in the making, spanning several continents and workers across different cultures, languages, and climates, who all had something to say in regards to their treatment in a city that has been bringing international workers illegally within their borders for decades now.
It is only recently that a wave of discontent reached the point of no return, prompting those that have been silent for far too long to finally speak out and have their story told. With so much discontent vocalized, progress is being demanded. As the recent protests against Prime Minister Erdoğan have shown, people are becoming less and less afraid to object to unfair treatment, no matter what the consequences. How Turkey reacts and proceeds from here when it comes to employment will determine whether it remains a true powerhouse in every way on the international scale or continue to straddle the fence as a destination worthy of the attention it has drawn.