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Textile industry: Syrian refugees in Turkish supply chains

According to the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, Syrian refugees (some of them minors) were illegally hired and exploited in several Turkish factories supplying large European clothing brands1.

Four companies reported identifying illegal Syrian refugees in their supplier factories – H&M, C&A, Primark and NEXT. H&M and NEXT also reported detecting Syrian refugee children working in their factories. The companies asserted to have addressed and solved these problems. Many other firms however, neither conducted sufficiently thorough investigations nor did they establish any preventive measures to mitigate these illegal practices.

Turkey is the third largest textile exporter to the European Union after China and Bangladesh, but remains largely unregulated, as an estimated 60% of the workers in this sector are unregistered2. An increasing number of those are refugees from war-torn Syria, because only a fraction of the 2.2 million refugees currently living in Turkey can be provided for by the government. After worrying reports of pitiful wages and poor working conditions for illegal workers from Syria, the NGOBusiness and Human Rights Resource Centre last December approached 28 major garment brands with specific questions about their suppliers in Turkey. Ten companies provided detailed information, another five indicated that they would respond in the future. The rest either referred to general auditing policies or declined to respond3.

Business and Human Rights Resource Centre has criticized the lack of willingness shown by many brands in addressing the problem and in sufficiently investigating their own supply chains. It is estimated that between 250 000 and 400 000 Syrian refugees are working illegally in Turkey. They are particularly vulnerable to exploitation due their uncertain legal status and lack of financial resources. Even instances of child labour and sexual abuse have cometo light.

As in many cases before, one of the major problems is the improper monitoring large companies apply to production processes beyond the first tier of suppliers. They tend to investigate working conditions of their direct subcontractors, with less scrutiny further down the supply chain. When asked, only a few companies claimedto investigate conditions in all affiliated production sites related to their compliance with company policies. Indicating that the true number of affected companies is potentially substantially higher than reported.

The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre praised H&M and NEXT for the fast and thorough resolution of the allegations. NEXT is also the only company of those approached that developed a specific Syrian Refugee Action Plan, providing guidelines for the factories in cases where refugees are identified. Another two (Inditex (Zara) and White Stuff) communicated specific policies with their suppliers when they became aware that refugees might become an issue. H&M alsotook action to protect Syrian minors against exploitation. European garment producers also urged the Turkish government to change the labour legislation for refugees. In response, the government announced in mid-January that work permits would now be issued for Syrians under temporary protection status after six months, to lessen the problemof illegal employment.

Due to the increasing number of refugees coming to Turkey, the risk of exploitation – especially of unaccompanied minors – increases accordingly. To better be able to provide support for them, the Turkish government is discussing the possibility of new aid payments from the EU4. Still, many will continue to depend on illicit employment. European investors and companies with suppliers in Turkey now need to insist more than ever on their subcontractors’ compliance with labour standards.

  1., accessed on 03.02.2016 []
  2., accessed on 03.02.2016 []
  3., accessed on 03.02.2016 []
  4., article in German, accessed on 03.02.2016 []