What Are the Chinese Doing in Turkey?

Deep in the heart of southeastern Turkey, this ancient town sits atop a hillside overlooking the plains of the Mesopotamian Valley. Residents of its terraced, honey-colored houses enjoy a fine view of villages and wheat fields that stretch all the way to the Syrian border.

The area is still largely hidden from outside visitors. Tourism is just beginning to pick up. And locals still react with curiosity to a foreign face. But for the last three years, a group of workers from China has called this town their home. Turkish employees manufacturing door locks at the Mar-Faal factory are no longer surprised to be working alongside Chinese co-workers on the assembly line.

The Mar-Faal factory, which manufactures door locks, is the first Chinese-Turkish partnership in a region that desperately needs economic uplift.

Southeast Turkey continues to emerge from more than two decades of fighting between Kurdish separatists and the Turkish government. Ordinary citizens are now mostly shielded from skirmishes in remote villages and along the Iraqi border, but daily life is still a challenge.

Compared to Istanbul and other cities in Western Turkey, where unemployment is at 10 percent, some areas of the Southeast approach 60 percent unemployment.

Region Devoted to Manufacturing

Mar-Faal means "Mardin Working," exactly what its shareholders -- one Turkish, two Chinese -- hoped to achieve when they established the factory in 2005.

Though it only employs 90 people, it's one of about 100 factories within the Mardin Industrial Zone, a special region devoted to manufacturing that is separated from the fields of farmers on the floor of the Mesopotamian Valley. These factories employ 3,500 people and offer an alternative to the traditional livelihood of agriculture.

The factory's Turkish investor, Ismail Kaya, has done business with his Chinese counterparts, Rukang Kong and Xiaotao Wang, for years. Looking only at the economics of it, might have been more lucrative to set up Mar-Faal in China, where wages and production costs are far lower and workers are technically skilled. Kaya acknowledges this but hopes that with their investment they can contribute to his hometown's economic growth, reduce unemployment and make a profit at the same time.

To get that going, they imported talent and machinery from China to Turkey. At its start, Mar-Faal hosted 20 workers from China who trained and supervised the Turkish laborers, most of whom had farming backgrounds and no technical skills.

The Turkish workers are paid the equivalent of $500 per month. Their day starts at 8 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m. with an hour break midday. They are paid extra for Saturday shifts.

The Chinese workers left children and families behind, but they are well compensated for their stint abroad. Their $250 per month salary in China increased to $850 in Turkey, with all expenses paid as well. So most workers send their salaries directly back home.

Mar-Faal is located in a large warehouse complex reminiscent of airplane hangars, with areas separated for raw materials, manufacturing and packaging.

Kai Xiu, 36, is a supervisor in the packaging department. She has worked in Turkey for two years and will return to her hometown near Wuhan next year. "The Turkish workers are learning kind of slowly," said Xiu. "But they'll be OK in a year."

But just how do workers from two different cultures explain the intricacies of assembling a lock or how to check parts in quality control?

Learning to Work Together

Mardin native Nurcan Agirman, 18, began her job at Mar-Faal seven months ago. Under the strong breeze from a revolving fan, she cleans a part of the door lock. "At the beginning it was difficult to communicate," said Agirman. "We used a lot of pointing and sign language. But it's fine now. I really miss my co-workers who went back to China."

Most of the Chinese workers have returned home. Today, there are five left in Mardin: two couples and a single man.

One of those who stayed is a Chinese woman whose sole job is to cook traditional food for the Chinese workers. She grows Chinese vegetables in the large garden adjacent to the factory and works alongside another cook who provides meals to the Turkish workers. Lunch is on the company.

Workers at Mar-Faal process 20 tons of iron to manufacture 48,000 door locks within a 45-day period. The "Faal" door lock sells for less than $3.

"We're producing a lot of product that sells at a low cost," said Salman Kaya, manager of the factory. "We're hoping to dominate the market and offset the higher cost of wages in Turkey."

Even with these extra costs, the region offers some unique advantages to the business. It is rich in iron; raw materials don't need to be trucked in from miles away.

Government Offers Land

The Turkish government provided the land for the factory and doesn't require the company to pay any taxes for five years. Mardin itself is in a strategic location, close to Iran, Iraq and Syria, where it exports the door locks (they're also exported to China, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan and Germany, as well as being sold in Turkey).

The Mar-Faal project may be the first of more foreign investment in southeast Turkey. Iran and South Korea have expressed interest in manufacturing in the region, according to Besir Ensari, general manager of the Mardin Organized Industrial Zone.

In addition, investors from Australia, China, France, India, Italy and Israel are considering manufacturing and farming in southeast Turkey, according to the Turkish Daily News. One of those potential partnerships is a Hong Kong-based clothing supplier for Wal-Mart, Esprit and Armani which may locate factories in the area to take advantage of the area's proximity to Europe and higher quality standards.

The Turkish government itself has promised to infuse more capital into the region. Earlier this year, it announced an investment of between $11 billion and $12 billion over five years for public works projects in the region.

Investors at Mar-Faal are hoping to open another factory in Mardin. This one would manufacture faucets. If they bring in foreign workers, they can count on Salih Agirman to help the Chinese visitors acclimate to Turkey. Agirman is one of the managers at Mar-Faal and has spent nearly all his time with the Chinese workers. He now speaks fluent Chinese.