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Syrian Garment Workers in Turkey: Modern Slavery?

Tragic human disasters in the garment industry, such as the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013, have driven the debate on the human and environmental cost of our insatiable demand for cheap and fast fashion. The low and declining prices we pay in store are widely seen as the sign of an industry exploiting workers and paying unfair wages. As global brands fail to be transparent about working conditions in their supply chains, the costs to workers remain hidden in the global garment industry. The situation in supplier countries like Turkey has become more important and controversial. The workforce is cheap and readily available, with low entry barriers to the labour market for migrant workers. The structure of garment supply chains in Turkey and its reliance on the exploitation of Syrian workers is indicative of this dysfunctional industry.

Recent reports from campaigning organisations, NGOs and multi-stakeholder initiatives aiming to improve the conditions of informal migrant labour give an informative insight into the issues at play. A report from Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) Turkey shed light on the details of refugee labour abuses in the garment industry in Turkey and highlights refugee workers’ experience and their precarious conditions while understanding refugees’ own agency and struggles. Turkey is the seventh largest exporter of garment products in the world and the third largest exporter to Europe after China and Bangladesh. Like many other supplier countries, the Turkish garment industry is fuelled by a cheap and flexible workforce. However, the main advantage of the Turkish industry lies in the shorter production cycles based on proximity to Europe and favourable customs arrangements. This advantage and flexibility, coupled with the precarious and exploitative working conditions, “is based on Turkey’s ability to get quality clothing at low cost”.

Turkey’s garment industry is reliant on production in small and medium enterprises. 78% of exported garments are sent to subcontractors as textile manufacturers have no production facilities. The structure of the industry, the links with subcontractors, the patterns of informal employment and the composition of the labour force mean that Syrian refugees’ involvement in the garment industry becomes the inevitable and preferred option for subcontracted enterprises as the sector is constantly in search of cheap labour.

There are 3.6 million registered Syrian refugees in Turkey.  Having escaped from their country’s civil war, many now make a living in the garment industry, formally and informally. It is easy to state that their participation in the labour market has made the endemic problems worse in the country. According to official statistics, a total of 31,000 Syrian refugees were given work permits up to March 2019; while in the garment industry, 3 thousand Syrian workers are officially employed with work permits, but approximately 250-400 thousand Syrian workers are estimated to be employed informally and illegally.

These workers should be registered in the same city with their workplace to obtain a work permit under the temporary protection regime. However, the majority of these workers are registered in another city, which causes delays and procedural obstacles to get the work permit. There are also other restrictions and obstacles which result in exploitation: long and frustrating processes of getting a work permit which should be done by the employer, the workers’ inability to transfer their registration to a new city when they find a job there, and lack of adequate capacity for İŞKUR – the state employment agency – to act as an intermediary between employers and refugees. In this context, informal intermediaries play a decisive role, with 41% of Syrian workers stating that they found their current job through informal intermediary networks.

Precarious employment conditions, long working hours – over 60 hours per week where the legal limit is 45 hours – poor wages and child labour are common in garment subcontractors, including those that produce garments for European brands. Based on fieldwork, the recent CCC Turkey report portrays the situation with a view from garment industry with Syrian workers in Istanbul, where 85 % are informally employed and did not hold a work permit. Workers state that “they regularly had to work overnight and even sleep in their workshops if it is getting too late and in times of large orders and approaching delivery deadlines”. These conditions have attracted increased attention and a call for urgent action against exploitation and discrimination to tackle the various needs of Syrian workers.

What should brands do?

The working situation of Syrians remains exploitative and this stands in sharp contrast to brands’ commitment to responsible business conduct. Brands can and should play a constructive role in upgrading the conditions in supplier factories. One of the ways to tackle labour abuses in the supply chains is to work collaboratively in a constructive dialogue with the Turkish government to improve the work permits of Syrian workers. However, brands often fail to look further down the supply chain and detect bad working conditions in third-tier garment factories. According to a BHRRC report, most of the garment brands surveyed communicate only with their main suppliers about their position on the employment of Syrian workers. Some brands also linked their approach to Syrian workers in Turkey with the reporting requirements of the Transparency in Supply Chains Clause of the UK Modern Slavery Act.

Fair Action and Future in Our Hands investigated how five Nordic brands (H&M, KappAhl, Lindex, Gina Tricot and Varner) tackle the risk of Syrian refugee exploitation in their supply chains and how they take action to be more transparent.  According to the research: “while formal enterprises that export to international brands are often subject to labour audits by their US or European customers, it is common among these first-tier suppliers to subcontract to smaller businesses once larger orders come in”. Once these first-tier factories subcontract part of the production, it becomes hard to monitor the working conditions or labour abuses in the low-cost units. In some cases, the main suppliers do not inform the buying brand about the subcontracting, so called undeclared subcontracting. For the global brands that source from Turkey, undeclared subcontracting is a persistent problem for identifying vulnerable workers.

It is clear that there is need for permanent measures to improve living and working conditions of Syrian workers with public and private employment policies in Turkey. These reports and studies have clearly emphasised that global garment brands have the power and responsibility to enact positive change. Although some are making progress and state their policies, practices and strategies to eliminate informal employment of Syrian workers in their supply chains, fast production time and cost cutting pressures still incentivise labour abuse in the garment industry. At the lower tiers of the garment supply chain especially, informal Syrian labour helps suppliers to meet buyer and consumer demand for flexibility and price.

Global brands should take more responsibility in these matters to stop worker rights violations in their supply chains and to improve the situation for Syrian workers, starting from monitoring their lower-tier garment factories. It is not acceptable to turn a blind eye to modern slavery conditions of informal Syrian workers in their lower tier suppliers. It is time to start talking about transparency and decent worker rights – with real evidence of action.

Safak Tartanoglu Bennett is a Research Fellow at the University of Greenwich

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