Story of refugee workers in Turkey’s textile sector

Story of refugee workers in Turkey’s textile sector

Many world famous clothing companies have their goods produced by textile houses in Turkey. Brands tell suppliers: “Produce this amount of that product.” Suppliers distribute the order to the contracting firms they work with. 

Daily Hürriyet reported last week that some of these firms were using child laborers. Those reports follow stories last year when the BBC revealed child labor at a workshop in Turkey producing goods for H&M. 

But child laborers are not the only issue in textile workshops in Turkey. The illegal hiring of refugees is another. 

On paper, everything looks clean. There is a strict contract between the giant brand that has its clothes produced in Turkey and the supplier. The contract concerns the legal circumstances in workshops where production is made, and all brands are required to ensure that all workshops comply with all legal conditions. 

But illegal or child laborers can still be spotted in these workshops. The workshop management mentality in Turkey rarely complies with such written conditions. Certain brands that know this do not trust suppliers or workshops and monitor workshops themselves. Often, when they raid workshops in their production chain they find several illegal refugees working under adverse conditions. 

Some textile firms claim “there are no illegally hired refugees in our workshops.” But this is shown to be untrue when you visit their workshops. If the brand says: “I have given verbal warnings to the supplier, there is no such issue in the workshops that are producing for us,” but does not monitor the workshops, it means that it is ignoring this fact even though it knows about it.  

Several responsible brands, when they determine illegally hired refugees in the textile workshops they monitor, tell their suppliers that they will provide an improvement process for these workers that the workshop must comply with or face losing the contract. 

When the brand says it will quit, it means it will leave together with the workers in that workshop. The brand does not leave the workers alone and can transfer them to the workshop of another supplier. 

As these are giant firms, they have serious power when they send such ultimatums to their suppliers. 

Four big brands, including the Zara Group’s Indietex, are conducting an improvement process together with the Refugee Support Center (MUDEM). 

Brands can tell suppliers to immediately obtain work permit for the refugees they employ, and this partnership with MUDEM is useful if they do not trust their suppliers. 

As soon as the brand informs MUDEM that a refugee is illegally employed at a workshop, that person is interviewed by MUDEM, which examines the situation and informs workers of their rights. Hardly any of them know their rights. They accept working for 800 to 900 Turkish Liras a month because they do not know about the minimum wage. 

Once informed, MUDEM makes applications for a work permit and the refugee worker is registered to a Turkish language course. Some 200 refugees illegally employed at workshops have so far been included in MUDEM’s improvement program. 

As for child laborers, if they are found in workshops they are taken placed in a school. But because stopping the child from working means cutting the family’s income, the brand pays social support to the family until the child reaches the age of 16. 

MUDEM has obtained work permits for 50 refugees over the past year and sent nine kids back to school in Turkey. 

However, unfortunately there are still many brands that keep their eyes closed to the exploitation of refugee workers and refuse to conduct inspections. If those brands that send boxes of clothes to refugee NGOs are truly responsible, they would do better to just hire refugees legally. They should not leave refugees alone with the workshop owner mentality; they should not ignore their exploitation.