Fatmagul Altindag, an internal audit manager in Istanbul, has been back to working in her office full time since July 2021. COVID-19 vaccines are widely available in Turkey, so Altindag’s company and many others were at one time requiring vaccination or proof of a negative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test within the last 48 hours before employees could go to work in person.
“In our company, you can’t work from home. And if you don’t get vaccinated, you can only come to the office with PCR tests, which you need to have twice a week, and you have to pay for it on your own,” Altindag said.
Changes in PCR Testing Recommendations
Recently, however, Altindag’s company and many others in Turkey have been phasing out mandatory PCR testing due to a change in the recommendations from the Ministry of Labor and Social Security.
“Before, all employees of private workplaces fell under the scope of the mandatory PCR testing requirements set out under the general letter issued by the Ministry of Labor and Social Security. The previous letter stated that employers could request PCR testing from employees under certain circumstances, but currently this is not enforced,” said Kardelen Özden, an attorney with Gün + Partners in Istanbul.
On Jan. 15, a new letter removed the recommendation for general PCR testing for unvaccinated employees in the workplace.
Limitations from Data Protection Law
If employers choose to continue PCR testing, data collection for public health purposes needs to be handled delicately and deliberately.
“Employers can request HES codes [Turkey’s health tracking QR codes] or PCR test results, in compliance with the data protection aspect, only for the purposes of processing,” Özden said.
“HES codes and PCR test results qualify as health data, which is subject to conditions that are more restrictive than normal personal data,” she added. “Employers would need to inform employees and obtain explicit consent for processing these data. However, it is advised that a workplace doctor collects and processes these data, where applicable.”
Termination Can Only Be a Last Resort
Termination should be the last resort if a worker refuses PCR testing and vaccination, Özden said. Because of the new letter, employees have more leeway to refuse to get PCR tests.
So, before proceeding with termination, employers should attempt other available measures.
“For instance, we often lead our clients to introduce remote working where possible—for example, for white-collar employees,” she said.
If an employee is terminated and challenges that decision, it is important for the company to be able to prove that alternative work methods were unavailable.
Katie Nadworny is a freelance writer in Istanbul.