In Turkish sweatshops, Syrian children sew to survive

In Turkish sweatshops, Syrian children sew to survive

ISTANBUL - Reuters
In Turkish sweatshops, Syrian children sew to survive


Muna Awwal wants to go to school. But she needs to go to work  Muna says she is 10 years old. Nine, corrects her father, Mahmud, as they sit in the family’s second-floor flat in Istanbul’s textile district.

Muna and her family arrived in Turkey from Syria in 2013. For the past few weeks she has helped her father and 13-year-old brother Muhamed in a basement, making cheap tops, dresses and t-shirts for other textile suppliers. Her father Mahmud says some of the clothes are sold in Europe.

The family comes from the city of Aleppo and fled fighting in May 2013, he said. Mahmud says he relies on three of his five children to get by.

“It’s not normal at all to make my child work - with me or with anyone else,” Mahmud Awwal said in June. “It’s not good. But we have no other choice.”

Over a few days in April and May, Reuters met 13 Syrian children in three Turkish cities who said they have jobs making clothes or shoes, even though Turkey bans children under 15 from working. Another four who were older than 15 said they worked up to 15 hours a day, six days a week, despite a law that says those up to 17 can only work 40 hours weekly. 

In March, Brussels and Ankara agreed a deal that allows Europe to send back to Turkey migrants who came through the country on their way to Europe. Brussels has pledged up to 6 billion euros ($6.6 billion) to help migrants and refugees and the deal states that when people are returned, they will be “protected in accordance with the relevant international standards.”

Turkey houses more refugees than anywhere in the world: 2.73 million of them Syrians, more than half of whom are under 18. 

Ankara says it has spent more than $10 billion helping refugees. The government has said some Syrians may win Turkish citizenship. But the country is struggling to accommodate all those people, only 10 percent of whom are housed in camps. In May, the education ministry said some 665,000 Syrian children living in Turkey - a majority of school-age Syrians in the country - were not in school. Among 6 to 11 year-olds who live outside camps, Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) has said, fewer than 15 percent are in school.

Of around 125 Syrian households in Istanbul surveyed by Turkish charity Support to Life earlier this year, one in four households with children said at least one child could not go to school because the family depended on their pay. Half of those children worked in textiles.

Children have long been part of Turkey’s labor force. In 2012, the last year for which data was available, Ankara said almost 1 million Turkish children aged between 6 and 17 worked. Many of them help make clothing, textiles or shoes, industries that contribute $40 billion a year to Turkey’s economy and employ 2.5 million people - more than half of them as casual labor, according to unions.

Turkey exports $17 billion in clothing and shoes a year, most of it to Europe, especially Germany.
Syrians say they earn between half and a third of the going rate for the same work done by Turks. Children are even cheaper.

In Istanbul in April, a group of teenage boys spilled out of a tall, red-brick factory wheeling a massive metal cage full of rubbish toward a row of bins. 

The boys said they earned around $85 a week working through the night cleaning and boxing up shoes. “The boss is as nice as you can get,” said Juma, 17. “When we are working until the morning he comes and cracks a joke or gives us some sandwiches. Other times, if we have an order which needs to be done fast, he shouts at us.”

The youngest of them, Bashar after fleeing Aleppo in early April, he said. His father took him to the border and paid a smuggler $300 to take Bashar across alone.

The boys said the shoes at their factory are labelled for DeFacto, Turkey’s second largest apparel company with outlets in 11 countries, including Kazakhstan, Iraq and Russia. DeFacto said that using refugees as an illegal labor source is totally unacceptable. When undocumented workers are found in its supply chain, it said, it gives producers a chance to stop using them. If children are found, the relationship is severed immediately.

Other multinational companies have found find Syrian children working for their suppliers. Firms including Esprit, Next and H&M said in a survey conducted earlier this year by NGO the Business and Human Rights Centre they had found Syrian children making clothes for them in recent years and acted to fix the situation. Next and H&M told Reuters they had not found any more Syrians since. Esprit said it recently found more unregistered Syrian adults - but not children - at a supplier factory.