İHD Special Report: Economic and Social Rights during the COVID-19 Pandemic

In 2020, which marks the 72nd anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Human Rights Association has also received a large number of applications alleging violations of the right to work, poverty and unemployment due to the global crisis that has political, social, economic and ethical dimensions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic that has taken the world by the storm since the association has long been working to promote human rights and freedoms. This report, drafted by İHD’s Economic and Social Rights Commission and Dr. Nail Dertli, presents an overview of the impact of the pandemic on such economic and social rights as the right to work, unemployment and poverty based on applications lodged before İHD and puts forth the association’s recommendations from the perspective of human rights to resolve the problems created by the current state of affairs.

According to the report:

  • The Human Rights Association that has long been working to promote human rights and freedoms has received an unprecedented number of applications on violations of economic and social rights during the pandemic.
  • Although the Turkish Statistical Institute (TurkStat) indicated a decline in the unemployment rate during the pandemic, the state of affairs in the labor market is the exact opposite. Unemployment skyrocketed particularly in April, May and June 2020.
  • While the “economic stability shield package” implemented within the scope of the government’s response to the pandemic was mainly composed of loans offered and debts deferred, the amount of direct income support provided to citizens who lost their jobs and income remained quite low. The limited resource allocated for financial aid to citizens further deteriorated the economic and social destruction created by the pandemic particularly for the most vulnerable groups.
  • The primary source for financial aid offered to citizens because of the pandemic has been the unemployment insurance fund.
  • Even 36% of registered workers were not able to benefit from the short-time working pay due to strict eligibility conditions.
  • Since the substitution rates of the unemployment benefit, short-time working pay, and financial aid for wages were low, losses incurred in the wages of workers could not be compensated.
  • Even access to food and basic consumption goods became quite hard during the pandemic for poor households. Specifically households, which have had hard time in meeting their fixed costs, are being overwhelmed by gradually increasing debts due to fixed costs like electricity, water bills and rent payments.
  • Women and the disabled top the list of groups most vulnerable to the pandemic. Women poverty increased with the pandemic during which women’s caregiving burdens within the household got heavier.
  • Another group unable to benefit from state financial aids was small business owners and independent workers despite the fact that they were extremely affected by the pandemic.
  • Since the premiums for long-term insurance branches were not paid for workers benefitting from short-time working pay and financial aid, the periods during which they received these pays will not be taken into account in the total premium day count and particularly in pension rights. This makes it harder especially for those who work in precarious and casual jobs to enjoy social security rights like pension and disability retirement.
  • The state, which is responsible to provide a minimum standard of living for its citizens as per the social state principle, failed in its responsibility to do so. Instead this gap was attempted to be filled in by HDP through campaigns like “sister families” or by CHP’s metropolitan municipalities’ campaigns like “bill on the hook” and the like.
  • Not only could employees be protected against unemployment and income losses but also they were not protected against the virus at their work places. At least 368 employees lost their lives due to COVID-19 within the last 7.5 months. The Social Security Institution (SSI) circumvented COVID-19 to be reported as work accident or professional disease while at the same time blocking such professional murders to be recorded.
  • Turkey has not been abiding by international conventions and covenants it had signed. Moreover, it has not ratified a large number of International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions and put forth reservations in some conventions as well.


  • The authorities should stop imposing restrictions on rights and freedoms under the pretext of the pandemic. Measures to be taken should comply with domestic laws as well as the conventions and covenants that Turkey signed.
  • Initiatives for both the economic and social dimensions of the pandemic should be carried out in complete transperancy and in cooperation with trade unions and other relevant parties.
  • Initiatives for the health dimension of the pandemic should be carried out in cooperation with scientists and organizations in the healthcare field, notably with the Turkish Medical Association.
  • COVID-19 should be recognized as an occupational disease for healthcare workers and as occupational accident for workers in other lines of work.
  • Vaccines should be regularly available and free of charge for everyone.
  • A wage that would enable persons to live with human dignity should be paid to each unemployed person and poor households.
  • The conception of clientelism-based social aid should be abandoned as it feeds on factors like social exclusion, ethnic and religious differences, indigence and poverty and social aids should be given a legal status with regular income support for those in need.
  • The scope and eligibility conditions of unemployment insurance should be reorganized.
  • Legislation on the prohibition of layoffs should be reviewed and the exceptions therein should be retracted.
  • A monthly wage (aid) at least on the level of minimum wage should be paid to 8.3 million households taking into account broad-based unemployment. The Central Bank should mint money, if need be, and provide direct income support to this end.
  • Under Article 18 of Law No. 5510 on Social Insurance and Universal Health Insurance, women workers are granted temporary incapacity benefits during maternity rest (maternity benefit) “on the condition that they reported at least 90 days of insurance premimums a year before they give birth.” Many women workers cannot practically work because of short-time working and unpaid leave practices that have been in effect since March 2020 due to the pandemic and their insurance premiums are not being paid. The condition requiring 90 days of premium payment in the legislation should be annulled and pregnant women should be made eligible for maternity benefits.
  • All workers should be made eligible for short-time working pay instead of “cash wage support” paid under the name of unpaid leave and the restrictions prescribed for the short-time working pay should be removed and a wage at the level of at least minimum wage should be paid.
  • Unregistered workers should be protected by social insurance; economic support should also be granted to unregistered workers during the pandemic and legislation should be introduced to enable access to heatlh care services free of charge.
  • Small-business owners’ debts should be deferred, their tax rates should be decreased, and support should be provided for small-business owners in need.
  • Pensions should be raised to a level at which retirees can live humanely and the lowest pension should be at the level of minimum wage.
  • Economic, social and psychological support should be provided to prevent domestic violence and suicide because of economic dire straits.
  • Economic, social and psychological support should be provided for the care of disabled and elderly individuals.
  • Measures to meet the basic needs of 5-6 million refugees, immigrants, and foreigners under temporary protection should be taken.
  • The 2021 budget should provide support for groups affected by COVID-19.
  • Minimum wage deliberations should take into account the poverty threshold instead of the hunger threshold; taxation of minimum wage should be stopped.
  • Large corporations and the wealthy should be taxed based on wealth.
  • The VAT levied on staple products, particularly on food and hygienic products, should be nullified.
  • How will the financing of all these costs be met? The government’s policies in favor of which group and for whom the budget will be used may answer this question. When one studies the last 15-20 years, it is unfortunately seen that the budget has been transferred to capital and pro-government corporations have gone up among the first 500 companies. This, in turn, shows that no significant support program was devised for the people other than “election aids” thorugh a mere clientelist perspective. As the present report indicates, a good part of the amount accumulated in the unemployment fund has been allocated to employers as support. Our recommendation for this is firstly to utilize the Unemployment Insurance Fund only for workers and stop allocating it to employers. Secondly, wealth tax should be levied and economic regulations should be introduced to the advantage of the lower income groups in the society rather than those who are economically strong. Thirdly, the guarantees granted to corporations for highways, bridges and airports that are not used by citizens should be cancelled, overpayments to these should be taken back and used for the poor.
  • The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted a statement on 6 April 2020[1] and the recommendations offered therein should be taken into account: “The pandemic has deep negative impacts on the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights (‘ESCRs’), especially the right to health of the most vulnerable groups. […] States are under an obligation to take measures to prevent, or at least to mitigate these impacts. However, if States do not act within a human rights framework, a clear risk exists that the measures taken might violate ESCRs and increase the suffering of the most marginalized groups. No one should be left behind in taking the measures necessary to combat this pandemic.”

[1] https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G20/095/28/PDF/G2009528.pdf? OpenElement

For the full report in English click: SR202012_Economic and Social Rights Report-2