Some of Britain’s biggest highstreet shops have been selling clothes made by Syrian refugees, a documentary has uncovered.
A BBC Panorama investigation revealed factories in Turkey were using vulnerable minors to help produce clothes for Marks and Spencer and Asos.
One factory, which boasted of making clothes for Next, was discovered employing Turkish children and Syrian refugees. Refugees were also found being exploited by working illegally on Zara and Mango jeans.
All of the brands claimed they carefully monitor their supply chains in Turkey and that they do not tolerate the exploitation of refugees or children.
Marks and Spencer said its inspections have not found a single Syrian refugee working in its supply chain in Turkey.
But Panorama found seven Syrians working in one of the British retailer’s main factories. The refugees often earned little more than a pound an hour – well below the Turkish minimum wage and were employed through a middleman who paid them in cash on the street.
One of the refugees told Panorama they were poorly treated at the factory. He said: “If anything happens to a Syrian, they will throw him away like a piece of cloth.”
The youngest worker was 15 years old and was found working more than 12 hours a day, ironing clothes before they were shipped to the UK.
A spokesperson for Marks and Spencer said the programme’s findings were “extremely serious” and “unacceptable to M&S.” After the revelations, it offered permanent legal employment to any Syrians who were employed in the factory.
“Ethical trading is fundamental to M&S. All of our suppliers are contractually required to comply with our Global Sourcing Principles, which cover what we expect and require of them and their treatment of workers. We do not tolerate such breaches of these Principles and we will do all we can to ensure that this does not happen again.”
Many clothes sold in Britain are now made in Turkey, Panorma says, because the country is close to Europe and is used to dealing with orders speedily.
Most of the refugees working in the factories filmed undercover do not have work permits and many of them are working illegally in the garment industry, the BBC said.
Panorama reporter Darragh MacIntyre spoke to dozens of Syrian workers who felt they were being exploited. He said: “They speak of pitiful wages and terrible working conditions. They know they are being exploited but they know they can do nothing about it.”
In one back-street workshop in Istanbul, the programme team found several Syrian children hard at work. They also discovered an ASOS sample in the office.
Asos accepted its clothes were made in the factory, but said it is not an approved factory. The company has since inspected and found 11 Syrian adults and three Syrian children under 16 at work.
A spokesperson for the company vowed that the children will be financially supported so they can return to school and the adult refugees will be paid a wage until they are found legal work.
They said: “We have implemented these remediation programmes despite the fact that this factory has nothing to do with Asos.”
The investigation also discovered Syrian refugees working 12 hour days in a factory that was distressing jeans for Mango and Zara.
The refugees were involved in spraying hazardous chemicals to bleach the jeans, but most of the workers didn’t even have a basic face mask.
Mango says that the factory was working as a subcontractor without its knowledge. Its subsequent inspection didn’t find any Syrian workers and found “good conditions except for some personal safety measures”.
Zara’s parent company, Inditex, says its factory inspections are a “highly effective way of monitoring and improving conditions”. It had already found significant non-compliance in an audit in June and had given the factory until December to make the necessary improvements.
In another Istanbul factory, Panorama found Syrian adults at work alongside Turkish children as young as ten.
The owner said he had been working for Next and showed the undercover team a set of pyjamas with the brand’s label that he said the factory had helped produce.
Next says the pyjamas were actually made by another supplier and the pyjamas we saw may have been a sample. It says samples circulate widely and that the presence of a sample in a factory does not mean it was made there.