B.A., age 34, was hired in Ankara by the Turkish construction company Yilmazlar to work in Israel and promised a salary of $1,900 a month. But half an hour before he was due to board the plane to Israel three years ago, his employer handed him a large pile of documents to sign, which he did quickly and without the time to read them.
As it turned out, the documents included a bond of $40,000 held by the company. In Israel he found himself working 12-hour days, including Fridays, and many times even longer hours. In four instances he worked 24 continuous hours. When B.A. received home leave after accumulating vacation days, he received no pay.
He received none of the social benefits entitled to him under the law nor did he receive a pay slip on a regular basis. At night, he slept in a camp where he and the other Yilmazlar workers were not free to come and go.
B.A.’s testimony is one of five that appear in a lawsuit filed against the Turkish company last month that alleges a decade-and-a-half of abuse, including allegations it locked it workers in a camp when they weren’t at their jobs, hired guards to hunt down employees who tried to escape and delayed medical treatment to workers to hide workplace accidents.
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Yilmazlar, the Israeli subsidiary of the Turkish firm Yilmazlar Insaat, which is jointly owned by brothers Ahmet and Adnan Yilmaz, has been dogged by such accusations for years. It arrived in Israel in the 1990s to help build homes for the wave of Russian immigrants.
Its operations expanded after a 2002 agreement between the Israeli and Turkish governments under which Israel sold Turkey military gear. In return, Yilmazlar got the right to import foreign workers to boost its construction business. Over the years, that quota grew from 800 to 1,100 at the end of 2017.
The company built the square tower in Tel Aviv’s Azrieli Center, as well as Israel’s three Ikea stores and annexes to Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital and to Jerusalem’s Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Karem. It also built the skeleton frames of seven of the 10 towers in Tel Aviv’s upscale Park Tzameret.
In 2004 the first lawsuits were filed against the company, alleging many of the same things that the five claim in the current suit – bonds in the tens of thousands of dollars and allegations that the dormitory camp the company runs for workers in Kfar Qasem bars them from coming and going except for certain defined hours.
Attorney Haim Ayash, who represents the company, said it would respond to the allegations in detail in court.
“Over its many years in Israel, Yilmazlar has employed thousands and maintained all their rights in accordance with the labor laws of the country… Its activity in Israel is supervised by all the relevant authorities and is often praised for its compliance with all the requirements and even more,” Ayah said.
“It should be noted that similar claims raised in the past were found to be baseless and, accordingly, similar claims against the company were rejected time after time,” he added.
In the case of B.A., the plaintiff claims that after working for two years, during which he suffered one accident, he asked his manager for a raise or for another home leave. In response, the suit claims, the manager told him he would be punished and maybe fired.
B.A. fled the camp and gave an interview to Channel 2 television. He remained in Israel but several months later was identified by what the suit calls a “escapee hunter,” threatened and beaten up badly enough that B.A. needed medical attention. The doctor’s report is appended to the court papers. Upon his return to Turkey, Yilmazlar presented B.A. with a claim for the $40,000 bond.
B.A. isn’t the first to assert that the company retains people to hunt down employees. In a 2016 complaint to the police by an employee who left the company and then was expelled from Israel. The complaint cited other incidents of workers being tracked down and named the people who had been retained to do it.
“The team consists of seven or eight Turks who work for the company in construction, but their job is also locate Yilmazlar’s employees and ‘teach them a lesson,’” according to one of the workers named in the police complaint.
Another plaintiff, a 50-year-old Turk who worked for the company nearly three years until last April, alleged that he was told to sign a bond of 60,000 Turkish liras (about $25,000 at the exchange rate at the time).
The company said this was to ensure he arrived at his flight to Israel, but later told him it was to ensure he didn’t leave his job during the first year, the ex-worker claims.
Like others, he claims he was working 12-hour days and night shifts. Deductions prohibited by law were made from his pay checks. When he questioned this, his manager allegedly answered, “If you’re not happy, you can go home.”
T.K.’s testimony in the lawsuit alleges that Yilmazlar covered up workplace accidents by using private clinics to treat injuries and failing to report them.
In the first of three workplace accidents, T.K.’s finger was badly hurt when a concrete block fell on it. His manager, T.K. alleges, ordered him to continue working for three days before sending him off to the clinic, where the doctor gave him 30 days’ sick leave. During that time T.K. was restricted to the dormitory camp except on weekends.
T.K. says he refrained from reporting the second injury for fear of being fired, but the third one – when a rock hit him on the head from a height of five meters – left him no choice. Instead of calling an ambulance to take him to the nearest hospital, he claims the site manager contacted the same private clinic, was picked up by a clinic driver and T.K. was given 10 days sick leave.