"The big Western clothing brands are only beginning to wake up to the huge reputation risk of exploited Syrian refugees in the factories they source from in Turkey" said a source in a UK clothing brand to me last week. As we pick up a bargain in the New Year sales on the High Street, we should look at the label and note the country of origin. This year, one of the risks with our latest fashion is that exploited and abused refugees from Syria may be one of the reasons the garments are so cheap.
Turkey and the Middle East are regions of rising concern. A burgeoning refugee population from Syria, usually without work permits, is vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. There are increasing reports from clothes factories of child labour, sexual abuse of women workers, and pitiful wages, as desperate and destitute women and children seek any type of income. How much these factories are producing for European high streets is unclear. We, at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, have begun a programme engaging major western brands sourcing from Turkey to identify how they are working to ensure that Syrian refugees are not exploited and abused in their supply factories.
Turkey is home to over 2.2 million refugees, 1 million of working age. Only 4,000 have been granted a work permit since 2011. Turkey has been rightly praised for accepting far more Syrian refugees than the whole of Europe, and spending $8.5 billion on their welfare. But the refugees' impoverishment and enforced-idleness has led to women and children seeking work illegally, with all its heightened vulnerabilities.
Estimates of the number of Syrian refugees now working illegally vary from 250,000 to 400,000. A recent report indicates that child labour has is prevalent. Children are said to be preferred as they learn new jobs and the Turkish language faster, are more pliant, and they expect even less pay - in 2015, this was often little over half the legal minimum paid to Turkish workers of Lira 1000 or $343, which increased by almost 30% on January 1. Children in the informal sector are said to be working up to 12 hours day for six days a week to put bread on their families' tables. The recent minimum wage increase will drive demand for cheap labour.
Many of these reports of child labour and exploitative conditions come from the clothes sector. Yet little is known about how much of this abuse may be in the supply chains of fast fashion entering European high streets. We know that a number of clothing brands are increasingly concerned about this threat to their ethical reputation, and are starting to look into this. "The scale of child labour, exploitative wages, and sexual abuse that is now being reported is sending shock-waves through some of our sector, while others are still asleep" said the UK clothing brand source. The brands also need to avoid making matters worse for refugees when they speak to their suppliers in Turkey - sacking exploited refugees will only worsen their plight.
The reputation risk to the fashion industry will surely grow through 2016: a year when the Syrian refugee crisis is unlikely to be resolved, and global value chains are on the agenda of almost every major international gathering including the G7 and G20, the ILO, and the World Bank.
The Fair Labour Association, the Ethical Trading Initiative and the International Trade Union Confederation are encouraging the Turkish government to give Syrians the legal right to work. But there is inertia with Turkish unemployment rates stuck at around 10%, and unskilled Turkish workers fear for their jobs and fair wages.
The government has promised to move on work permits, and the accord between Turkey and the EU reached six weeks ago may spur action on this: the agreement was for Turkey to stem the flow of migrants to the EU by raising Syrians' standard of living, and clamping down on borders, in exchange for $3.2 billion in aid, visa-free access to Europe for Turkish citizens, and reconsideration of Turkey as a new member of the EU.
In an effort to enhance the protection given to refugees in the apparel supply chains to Europe, we have reached out to 28 major clothing brands and asked them to report on the steps they are taking to protect Syrian refugees from abuse and exploitation. The questions cover the companies risk assessment, and what they do to protect Syrian refugees when they are found in factories. The responses will be provided in February on a free and publicly-available database in order to promote company transparency and accountability.