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Turkish Employers See Losing Women as Erdogan Plans More Births

Mother and Children
Two Turkish girls walk with their mother, after being picked up from school, in the Cihangir district of Istanbul. Photographer: Staton Winter/Bloomberg

Handan Yorulmaz has a new rule at her plastics manufacturing company in Ankara: She’ll only hire women if they have children older than 10, or none at all.

“I can’t risk losing time and money,” she said from the Turkish capital, where she employs 10 women and six men at Arti Plastik & Ambalaj.

Regulating the mothers on the payroll is her response to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s campaign for women to have at least three children -- preferably five -- and his push for laws to encourage people to marry earlier and procreate more. He’s backing measures to forgive newlyweds’ student loans and offer them low-interest credit, and to allow mothers with three offspring to retire early with tax breaks for their families.

Erdogan frames his crusade for more babies as an economic movement to ensure growth by creating a larger and younger population. Business owners and economists predict it will have the opposite effect by keeping mothers out of the workforce.

“The government’s planned moves are further pushing women toward home,” said Kadriye Bakirci, a professor and head of the labor and social security law division at Hacettepe University in Ankara. The administration’s policies reflect a “prejudiced mentality” that wants to marginalize women so that their primary responsibility is “to take care of the home, children, the handicapped and elderly.”

More Leave

Labor Minister Faruk Celik has rebuffed suggestions that the ruling Justice and Development Party proposals -- including one to expand maternity leave to 18 weeks from 16 -- are anti-working women. Instead, the government is using “positive discrimination for women while keeping them in the workforce” with the aim of reversing the slumping birth rate, Celik was quoted as saying by the state-run Anatolia news agency.

While maternity leave is popular with workers, it can be seen as a burden by employers. Erdogan’s drive for both more leave and more pregnancies has given the discussion a new twist, and angered business owners like Yorulmaz, who said she’s hesitant to employ young women. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the Republican People’s Party, said in a speech that the proposal was intended to “make sure that employers do not hire women.”

Erdogan’s motives on gender-related matters are sometimes met with suspicion because of positions he’s taken in Turkey, a country that in religion is predominantly Muslim and in politics was for decades secular. He most recently ignited debate when he said co-ed student housing was “against our conservative democratic makeup” and should be banned.

Criticizing Contraception

The father of two daughters and two sons, Erdogan claims Caesarean sections reduce fertility, and signed a law restricting them. He has criticized contraception and accused advocates of the birth control pill of encouraging women to take it “as if to serve sterilization.”

Erdogan’s focus on procreation may be aimed in part at balancing the country’s ethnic demographics. Women in the largely Kurdish southeast have an average of 3.47 children, higher than the national average of 2.08, according to 2012 figures by the state statistics institute. The government has been working to broker a peace deal with autonomy-seeking Kurdish militants to end decades of conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people.

Turkey’s annual growth rate decreased to 1.3 percent in 2011 from 1.7 percent in 1988. “I don’t want to see an aging Turkish nation by 2040,” Erdogan said in an Oct. 30 speech, referring to predictions that by then the percentage of Turks over 65 will be 14 percent of the population, and growing.

EU Politics

The country’s politics is closely watched in Europe. Turkey’s bid to join the European Union has stalled in part because of resistance within the EU to admitting a predominantly Muslim country. Erdogan critics have complained that he’s forcing a conservative Muslim program on a secular population.

“Erdogan should get out of my bedroom,” said Gulsum Tasyurek, an unemployed mother of two in Ankara. “Families make children if they can afford to raise them.”

In Turkey, the economy could be jeopardized by the focus on large families and conservative views of women, said Wolfango Piccoli, an analyst with London-based Teneo Intelligence, a political risk-assessment firm, in an e-mail. “Inculcating mindsets which regard women as being primarily homemakers is preventing talented women from entering the workforce.”

Low Participation

In the Erdogan decade, Turkey has become the world’s 17th-biggest economy, rising from 21st in 2002, according to the International Monetary Fund. It posted annual average growth of 5.1 percent, which is reflected in stock-market gains, with Turkey’s benchmark index rising about 700 percent.

But per-capita gross domestic product, which indicates living standards, has stalled since 2003, with Turkey at 58th in the world in 2012, ahead of Malaysia and behind Palau, according to a list of countries on the World Bank website. Turkey was ranked 43rd based on gross national income purchasing power parity, ahead of Panama and behind Equatorial Guinea. The unemployment rate was 9.2 percent in 2012 and is expected to increase to 9.5 percent by the end of this year.

Turkey’s female workforce participation rate was 31.6 percent in July, about half the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development average and about the same as in Kuwait and Sudan. Turkey ranks 120th out of 136 on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index. The country was 105th in 2006, three years after Erdogan became prime minister.

‘One Wing’

The low participation of women in the workforce “limits prospects for Turkey’s economic growth,” Martin Raiser, director of the World Bank in Turkey, said in Ankara last month when he introduced a project funded by the World Bank and Sweden to increase economic opportunities for women. “If Turkey can close the gap between women and men in the labor market it will be able to increase GDP by 30 percent,” he said.

Swedish Ambassador Lars Wahlund said at the same event that Turkey could achieve twin goals of increasing the birth rate and the number of working women. “The answer is a very generous package of parental leave like we have in Sweden,” he said. Parents in Sweden are entitled to 480 days of leave when a child is born or adopted, and daycare is inexpensive, and its female labor participation rate is 58 percent.

Askin Asan, Turkey’s deputy minister for family and social policies, said employers wouldn’t have to worry if the extended leave proposal is adopted. She said temporary workers supplied by new special employment bureaus would replace women on leave.

“Women’s participation in the workforce won’t be negatively affected,” Asan said in an interview in Ankara. “The role of special employment bureaus is key.”

‘Extremely Difficult’

In Ankara, Yorulmaz rejected the temporary-worker solution for Arti Plastik & Ambalaj. “It is out of the question for me to replace a worker who excelled at speed in cutting roasting bags for 15 years with an inexperienced worker,” said Yorulmaz, a member of the executive committee of the Women Entrepreneurs Council of the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges.

Some businesses have begun shunning women, said Nurettin Ozdebir, chairman of the Ankara Chamber of Industry, in an e-mail. Fatma Lale Ergun, an executive committee member of Women Entrepreneurs Council, said she now prefers employees with grown children at her medical education and tourism businesses. “A year ago, three of my workers got pregnant at the same time and it was extremely difficult to manage things,” she said. “The government should stop expecting the private sector to solve problems on its own. It must roll out the red carpet for investors instead.”

Last month, Erdogan lifted a longtime prohibition on Islamic-style head scarves in most government offices and schools, saying the ban was why he sent his daughters abroad for their university educations. He also said his party would field head scarf-wearing female candidates in the next election.

Zeynep Karabulut, an accountant in Istanbul who has two children, said she’s grateful to Erdogan for ending the ban. She’s not taking his advice about adding to her family, though. With her husband out of work for the past two months, she said, “we simply can’t afford to look after another child.”

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