CCC statement on the use of Syrian workers in high street supply chains

published 03-11-2016 15:30, last modified 19-04-2017 09:45
Clean Clothes Campaign welcomes the attention received by the recent BBC Panorama investigation into the exploitation of Syrian refugees, including children, within the supply chains of major European clothing retailers. We are calling on the Turkish government, the European Union and all major clothing brands to make sure adequate protections are in place that guarantee full respect of the rights of Syrian workers that will continue to be employed in the production of our clothing.
CCC statement on the use of Syrian workers in high street supply chains

Credit: Pieter van de Boogert

Clean Clothes Campaign Turkey has been working on this issue since 2013, when it became clear that large numbers of Syrians, who had fled to Turkey as a result of the ongoing war at home, were finding employment in the numerous unregulated and informal workshops that underpin the garment and textile industry. Since then we have been calling for action by the Turkish government to do more to protect these refugees, along with other informally employed workers, by granting them the full range of employment rights enjoyed by formally employed workers.

Undocumented labour

When Syrian refugees first arrived in Turkey, they were undocumented and had no guaranteed legal rights to live or work in the country. Employment, education and housing could only be met through the refugees’ own efforts to find work in the informal sector – within which the garment industry is one of the largest employers. Many of these refugees arrived with nothing, bringing their whole families in an attempt to find sanctuary from the daily bombings and attacks that characterise the conflict. Hardship forced these refugees to accept terrible working conditions: below minimum wage salaries, extreme working hours, unsafe working conditions, abuse and sexual harassment. The thousands of children that arrived with their families have no possibility for accessing schooling and, as families struggle to meet the most basic needs it is unsurprising that children are also forced to find ways to contribute to the family income. Unscrupulous employers have not wasted an opportunity to exploit their hardship.

The desire of the EU to designate Turkey as a safe third country to which it could deport Syrian refugees arriving in Europe led to pressure on the Turkish government to provide a route by which Syrian families could gain the right to work: a right that is explicitly included in the Geneva Convention. In January 2016 the Turkish government passed a law allowing employers to apply for working permits for their Syrian employees. Unsurprisingly, given that the aim of passing the law was not driven by the wish to protect Syrian refugees, but to ensure the EU-Turkey refugee deal could be made and given that the implementation of labour law is insufficient even for Turkish citizens, this has been largely ineffective at protecting refugees from exploitation. Turkish employers are not aware of the law, or are simply not willing to comply as this would mean minimum wages need to be paid. 

It is important to note that, while the focus today is on the plight of Syrian refugees to Turkey, the exploitation highlighted by Panorama is not unique to, and nor is it caused by, the sudden influx of people fleeing a war zone. The textile and garment industry is a sector in which irregularity and violation of rights is commonly observed all around the world. Informal work, lack of occupational health and safety, child labour and poverty wages are regarded as normal by employers who do not want to lose their market share within a highly competitive global industry. Migrant workers throughout the garment industry, both those migrating to other countries and those migrating internally, are particularly vulnerable to exploitation as a result of policies and laws that discriminate against those considered as citizens and those that recently arrived.

Informal workplaces in the Turkish garment industry

Turkey is a major player within this industry, and the third largest exporter of garments into the EU, combining the competitive advantage of its location close to market and its low-cost labour. The Turkish garment industry has long been characterised by the use of formal and informal workplaces combining together to produce a single product. An order will be placed by a brand with a factory it considers to be a key supplier, who will agree the terms on which the product will be manufactured and delivered. However, during production there a large number of steps which may be done either by the factory itself or, more commonly, will be subcontracted out to a variety of different subcontractors. These include: cutting the fabric; sewing the garment , laundry services - often subcontracted to small workshops to carry out the specific techniques required, for example to make them look worn, finishing, adding buttons/zips and ironing. After the finishing touches the garment will be packed and sent back to the main factory for delivery. Almost all these steps are performed at different workshops and under the responsibility of different employers, but they are all for the same brand’s product, bearing the same logo.

Most of the production therefore is likely to be carried out in workshops located in neighbourhoods which combine small scale production with homework. These workshops employ workers at the small factories or in private homes on an informal basis, without any social protection or insurance on a piece rate that is far to low to meet basic needs and far from the view of any labour inspectorate or union organiser. It is in these neighbourhoods and workshops that Syrian families are being employed. 

In the years immediately prior to the Syrian civil war, Turkish workers had been increasingly successful in building a social movement to demand their rights, making the widespread use of this kind of informal labour more difficult, or at least more expensive. This was viewed by employers as a direct risk to their ability to keep production costs low and profits high, particularly in the face of growing competition from other countries. As such many employers, especially in the garment and textile sector, saw the war, and the resulting mass influx of people totally unprotected by law, as a huge opportunity to continue the exploitative practices that had previously proved so profitable.

The “race to the bottom” that incentivises this kind of exploitation is not unavoidable, but is promoted by the buying practices and business choices of large brands and retailers, including but not limited to those highlighted by Panorama. Turkey is among the countries preferred by international firms because of its ability to produce higher quality, low cost clothing, fast. It is no secret that this achieved in large part because of the large network of informal subcontracting factories. Although brands may claim to forbid “unauthorised” subcontracting, they also know that without it their demands on price and speed simply couldn’t be met. It is no excuse to claim ignorance, when that ignorance is based on a wilful agreement to simply look the other way. Brands do have a responsibility to pay attention to where their clothes are being made and to ensure that ALL parts of the supply chain meet meet the national laws and international standards they purport to maintain in their glossy corporate responsibility reports and websites.

Refugees have the right to live and work in dignity

Syrian refugees have fled to Turkey and to Europe looking for sanctuary and shelter, only to find suspicion and exploitation. Syrian refugees, and all migrant workers, have the right to live and work in dignity, to educate their children and to keep them safe from harm. They are entitled to decent pay, safe workplaces and legal protections. It is the responsibility of all of us to provide that sanctuary: Governments, brands and retailers, employers and consumers all have parts to play. 

CCC Turkey, with the support of the CCC network is demanding that the Turkish government immediately enacts laws that better provide for the protection of the rights of refugees to work and puts in place the supervisory mechanisms required to ensure these laws are effective in protecting particularly vulnerable workers, including Syrian refugees. 

Both the Turkish employers and the multinational companies that they supply have a duty to act responsibly towards their employees, however weak and insufficient state control is. Regardless of the legal status of a worker, they they must be provided with at least the minimum wages and benefits provided for under law. Brands and retailers must publicly disclose all the factories used to produce their goods, from the textile production to the finishing shops, and ensure that they are not promoting the exploitation of vulnerable workers through their buying practices.

Consumers need to act in solidarity with those workers who have made their clothes, not by boycotting but by taking action to demand the protection of the rights of Syrian refugees, both in Turkey and in Europe. This includes Turkish consumers, who can join in the demand to recognise the rights of refugees.

The EU also has a responsibility both outside and inside its own borders to ensure that refugees can seek safe sanctuary, which includes the ability to live and work in dignity, wherever they chose to do so. 

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