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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