Corporate Exploitation of Women and Refugees in Turkey

Written by Andrew Rupp


As conflict and war endure in the middle east, Turkey’s bordering Syria has led to it being a haven for those fleeing its ongoing civil war. Nearly 6 million refugees have fled Syria since 2011, and, despite the newly constructed-EU-funded border wall between the two nations, at least 3.6 million have landed in Turkey (Popp, 2018; Santana de Andrade, 2020;, 2018).

Hundreds of thousands of refugees, though likely more, have found informal employment in Turkey’s expansive garment and textile industries (Korkmaz, 2016). These industries make up a large portion of Turkey’s exports, as Turkey is “[…] the seventh largest exporter of garment products in the world and the third largest exporter to Europe after China and Bangladesh” (Bennett, 2020). Informal employment, however, is difficult to assess, as even its definition has changed throughout the sector’s existence (ILO, 2002), yet there is overall agreement that informal employment is characterised by:

  • lack of protection or recognition under legal and regulatory frameworks;

  • little or no legal or social protection;

  • inability to enforce contracts or have security of property rights;

  • inability to organise for effective representation and have little or no voice to have their work recognised and protected;

  • exclusion from or limited access to public infrastructure and benefits;

  • dependence on informal, often exploitative institutional arrangements, whether for information, markets, credit, training or social security;

  • and are highly subject to the attitudes of public authorities (Anti-Slavery International, 2006).

It is well known that Turkey’s garment industry is sustained by informal workers, that is, an inexpensive and flexible workforce, while also having the advantages of:

“[…] shorter production cycles based on proximity to Europe and favourable customs arrangements. This advantage and flexibility, coupled with the precarious and exploitative working conditions, ‘is based on Turkey’s ability to get quality clothing at low cost’” (Bennett, 2020).

These factors have led American, Asian, and European corporations, in their drive for perpetually increasing profit margins, to source garment and footwear jobs elsewhere. Turkey’s proximity to Europe has made it a top choice for brands such as Esprit, H&M, Hugo Boss, S. Oliver, Adidas, Nike, the Gap, and Zara to capitalise on advantageous Turkish laws and/or the lack of enforcement of them (Hitchings-Hales, 2018; Sokollu, 2014). This outsourcing of jobs and/or work to a nearby country, such as the USA subsidising Mexican factories, is known as near-shoring, and has proven lucrative for big brands financing production in Turkey (BBC News, 2016).

Though concrete correlation and/or causation have not been determined, it should be, at this point in researching the garment and textiles industry, glaringly obvious that brands have massively profited through the use of informal work, forced labour, and modern-day slavery (Bennett, 2020; Global Slavery Index, 2018; Klein, 2000; Steiner-Dicks, 2019). By the same token, forced labour and modern slavery exceedingly effect women alongside other vulnerable populations (Global Slavery Index, 2018; LeBaron et al., 2018; Santana de Andrade, 2020). The predicaments refugees and asylum seekers face significantly heighten their chance of being exploited. This vulnerability is due to potential language barriers, unfamiliarity of the nation’s health care system, as well as lack of insight regarding legal, economic, cultural aspects (Humphris and Bradby, 2017). These circumstances also play major roles in being herded into forced labour and/or enslavement (LeBaron et al., 2018).

Near-shoring, that is, shipping jobs out of the company’s country of origin in which to cut costs, inhibits research into the issues of forced labour and slavery, as it, by design, creates more complexity for researchers and investigators so as to assess a business and its supply chain. As Bennett, (2020) elaborates:

“Turkey’s garment industry is reliant on production in small and medium enterprises. 78% of exported garments are sent to subcontractors as textile manufacturers have no production facilities. The structure of the industry, the links with subcontractors, the patterns of informal employment and the composition of the labour force mean that Syrian refugees’ involvement in the garment industry becomes the inevitable and preferred option for subcontracted enterprises as the sector is constantly in search of cheap labour.”

Near-shoring not only has resulted in forced labour issues, but also has contributed to Turkey’s increasing environmental concerns. Industrial and manufacturing corporations have been blamed for adding to Turkey’s growing pollution problem, as pollution of Turkey’s marine areas are currently at record highs due to industrial dumping of untreated wastes (Al Jazeera, 2021). Another instance of near-shoring’s environmental toxicity has resulted from plastic waste being exported from the UK to Turkey. This practise, ostensibly for plastics recycling, by corporations such as Tesco, Asda, Co-op, Aldi, Sainsbury’s, Lidl, Marks & Spencer, B&Q, Debenhams, and Poundland resulted in much of the waste being “[…] dumped, burned, piled into mountains and left to spill into rivers and the sea” (Laville, 2021).

Recent Case Studies

As European corporations catalyse and capitalise by way of neoliberal economic policies, outsourcing and near-shoring have become common business practises; as it seems companies must “do what they do best and outsource the rest” (LeBaron et al., 2018; Nguyen, 2020). Many EU corporations have outsourced/near-shored garment and textile manufacturing work to Turkey, with a growing number of this labour is undertaken by Syrian refugees (Pinedo-Caro, 2020). In general, these refugees are not making a living wage, lack social security, and are compelled to accept whatever work offered to them (Sjödin, 2017). Their vulnerability allows for brands, such as Zara, Mango, and Marks and Spencer, to pay well below the minimum wage, let alone a living wage (Bain, 2016). Other companies, such as H&M, Asos, Next, C&A and Primark have also been reported to profit on Syrian refugees; some of which being child workers (Goethals and Korkmaz, 2017; Hawa, 2016). Lastly, a recent study by the Clean Clothes Campaign: Turkey (2019) has concluded:

“After years of public attention, the working situation of a huge majority of Syrians remains exploitative to a degree that is not only inconsistent with Turkish labour law but also stands in sharp contrast to brands’ commitments to responsible business conduct.”

Broader Case Studies Regarding Human Rights

Legislation has been passed, yet with mixed results. In 2016, refugees were able to obtain temporary work permits, yet the process has been slow and/or confusing potentially due to resistance by managers in the informal sector (Korkmaz, 2016). Moreover, women’s rights have been precarious, especially in vulnerable refugee populations, as:

“In the extremely informal work environment of the garment industry in Istanbul, there is no proper legal framework that protects women and their reproductive rights. On the contrary, familial idioms and gender relations that mediate work hierarchies at the workplace disempower women garment workers” (Can, 2017).

However, legislation for legislation’s sake is obviously not the answer. Laws must assess the root causes to these issues and, above all, be enforced once they are passed. Corporate transparency would undoubtedly help investigators and lawyers, yet this alone will not amount to the industry’s much-needed systemic change, as one corporate executive expressed:

“There’s a lot of unwarranted excitement around transparency. Every company has slavery in their supply chain—anyone who says they don’t is lying or incompetent. But at the moment, suppliers are keeping the customer happy with low costs, auditors are making lots of money, and companies have plausible deniability. Transparency legislation won’t do anything to change that” (LeBaron and Rühmkorf, 2017).

Lastly, factory managers are not entirely to blame, as brands ultimately dictate the rate of productivity and prices. These are not generally assessed by the courts, as the neoliberal capitalist system continually reinforces the “greed is good” outlook. Exploitation, forced labour, and/or slavery have resulted, as:

“[…] multi-national corporations sourcing practices adds to the pressure on supplier firms to engage in forced labour. That instability takes many forms, including late-notice alteration to the size, content or timing of orders. A recent study of the ‘root causes’ of excessive overtime in Turkey’s garment industry, for example, found key issues to be delays in the supply chain outside the vendor’s control, the limited ability of suppliers to adapt to fluctuating orders, sudden and large orders, the unpredictability of future orders, last minute style changes and short lead times” (LeBaron et al., 2018).

Other Trends and Conclusion

Turkey’s overall rate of femicide is on the rise concomitant with the government’s baffling withdrawal from the 2011 Istanbul Convention. This is a piece of legislation which was “[…] signed by 45 countries and the European Union, requiring governments to adopt legislation prosecuting domestic violence and similar abuse as well as marital rape and female genital mutilation” (Al Jazeera, 2021). Refugees or no, those effected most by corporate crimes against humanity are women, with it is estimated that 80% of factory workers worldwide are female (ILO, 2019). It is becoming more crucial than ever for organisations to raise awareness of these issues, as families in Turkey with no means to buy necessities have been increasingly marrying off their underage daughters to survive (Høvring, 2019; Rodriguez, 2020).

For refugees and Turkish natives alike, working in the garment sector is arduous. Many employers do not present workers with contracts, registers for social security, or forms of dismissal; as an estimated 60% of Turkey’s garment workers are believed to be unregistered (Sjödin, 2017). Further, Turkey ranks among the ten worst countries regarding violations of trade union rights (ibid).

At the time of writing, Syrians are voting in what many nations describe as a sham presidential election with many refugees afraid to pass through checkpoints, let alone vote (Chehayeb, 2021a; Chehayeb 2021b; Evans and Rabah, 2021). Moreover, there exists the physical and mental health traumas experienced by Syrians refugees, especially children, resulting from 10 years of war and/or of being displaced. These consequences are unknown, as these issues have not yet been formally acknowledged by governments and/or policy makers (Rizkalla et al., 2020). Whatever the electoral outcome, it seems unlikely at this moment that positive, egalitarian change will materialise. The push for change has been placed upon non-governmental organisations, such as the International Labour Organization (ILO) and Justice in Fashion, to assess these issues so as to educate those who are unaware, and engage and empower those afflicted (JIF, 2021).

Photo source


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