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Tackling labour rights abuses of Syrian refugees in Turkey’s garment sector

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With now more than 2.5 million Syrian refugees registered in Turkey, measures to increase their access to legal employment and protect them from abuse are rising high up the ever increasing list of competing priorities to deal with the spiralling humanitarian crisis stemming from the regional conflict centred on Syria and Iraq.

Put simply, refugees not only need, but want to work to support their families and build new lives. However, they are often extremely vulnerable as a result of their legal status and the precarious nature of day-to-day existence.  Recent reports have unveiled exploitation of Syrian refugees working in Turkey’s large informal economy. Refugee children in particular have been found to be working in appalling conditions in the Turkish garment sector.

Dealing with this level of exploitation of informal workers is never easy. There has been some progress, though. Amidst pressure from the European Union and foreign brands sourcing from the country, the Turkish Government has recently issued a regulation allowing refugees under temporary protection status to apply for work permits needed to take up formal employment.

Jobs in Turkey crucial

While this step is crucial, it alone won’t solve the problem. Refugees will have to receive language and vocational training, especially if their economic opportunities are to improve sustainably. With Turkey’s formal unemployment rate lingering at 10%, jobs will need to be created to match the increase in labour supply. This has been recognised at last week’s donor conference, which put an emphasis on the creation of jobs in refugee hosting countries.

Yet, enforcement of the legislation will probably be the biggest challenge; and even more so in the garment sector, where complex subcontracting arrangements are common. It remains to be seen to what extent government action will be successful in moving refugees from informal to formal employment in the less transparent parts of the garment supply chain, let alone preventing the abuse of Syrian children as cheap labour.

Informality can fuel vulnerability and exploitation

This is where international buyers and international organisations have a role to play, and are starting to play it. The garment sector has been under increased scrutiny and industry stakeholders have made efforts to meet the challenges associated with Syrian refugees in garment supply chains (for example FLA and ETI’s Roundtable on Foreigners in the Turkish Labour Market or the Fair Wear Foundation’s guidance on risks associated with Syrian refugees in Turkish garment factories). Next and H&M recently admitted that they found refugee children working at some suppliers’ facilities. More importantly, they have also disclosed what they have done in response as well as how they intend to prevent further exploitation of Syrian refugees in Turkey’s garment workshops. More companies are following.

It’s crucial to keep this momentum going. Possible actions to be taken by brands, individually and in collaborative efforts, include: adjusting audit and monitoring procedures to make sure they are fit for purpose and able of detecting and responding to issues related to refugees and vulnerable workers without putting those workers in danger; developing strategies for the mitigation and remediation of refugees’ labour and human rights abuses; and using their leverage to work with Turkish suppliers to formally register Syrian refugees employed in their workshops. Collaboration with international and national agencies and civil society is crucial to ensure that there are no significant unintended consequences.

There are significant opportunities for international companies to play a real part in improving livelihoods for thousands of Syrian refugees – in Turkey, and possibly beyond. It will take some time before we’ll be able to assess results of the actions that are currently being taken at different levels and there are manifold risks and dangers. But lessons learnt from the Turkish garment sector may also prove useful to tackle similar issues in Lebanon and Jordan.