Middle East

In Turkish sweatshops, Syrian children sew to survive

Muna Awwal wants to go to school. But she needs to go to work.

Muna says she is 10 years old. Nine, corrects her father, Mahmud, as they sit in the family's second-floor flat in Istanbul's textile district.

Muna and her family arrived in Turkey from Syria in 2013. For the past few weeks she has helped her father and 13-year-old brother Muhamed in a basement they rent, making cheap tops, dresses and T-shirts for other textile suppliers. Her father Mahmud says some of the clothes are sold in Europe.

The family comes from the city of Aleppo and fled fighting in May 2013, he said. He shoos his children out of the room and settles on the carpeted floor. Now, he says, he relies on three of his five children to get by.

The Awwal family's situation is not unusual. It adds to questions about how safe Turkey is for families fleeing war.

"It's not normal at all to make my child work — with me or with anyone else," Mahmud Awwal said in June. "It's not good. But we have no other choice. It's very common here in Turkey."

Over a few days in April and May, Reuters met 13 Syrian children in three Turkish cities who said they have jobs making clothes or shoes, even though Turkey bans children under 15 from working. Another four who were older than 15 said they worked up to 15 hours a day, six days a week, despite a law that says those up to 17 can only work 40 hours weekly. Dozens more children who were working were unwilling to talk.

In March, Brussels and Ankara agreed a deal that allows Europe to send back to Turkey migrants who came through the country on their way to Europe. Brussels has pledged up to 6 billion euros (US$6.6 billion) to help migrants and refugees, and the deal states that when people are returned, they will be "protected in accordance with the relevant international standards."

The European Union says Turkey is a safe country: In April, European Council President Donald Tusk called Turkey "the best example in the entire world of how to treat refugees."

The United States is not so sure. Turkey's "efforts to protect the growing and highly vulnerable refugee and migrant communities in the country remain inadequate," the State Department said in a July report. 

And rights groups say Turkey is far from safe. Groups such as Amnesty International have documented Syrians being shot at by Turkish border guards as they try to cross into Turkey, living in squalor, or deported back into the fighting. And they note Syrian children, who are often unable to get to school in other frontier countries such as Lebanon, are part of the labor force.

Turkey houses more refugees than anywhere in the world: 2.73 million of them Syrians by the last count, more than half of whom are under 18. Ankara says it has spent more than $10 billion helping refugees. It doesn't recognize them as refugees, but at least on paper it does offer protection, including free education and basic healthcare, to those who register. The government has denied sending back any Syrians against their will and says no refugees have been shot at. President Tayyip Erdogan has said some Syrians may even win Turkish citizenship.

But the country is struggling to accommodate all those extra people, only 10 percent of whom are housed in camps. In May, the education ministry said some 665,000 Syrian children living in Turkey — a majority of school-age Syrians in the country — were not in school. Among 6 to 11 year-olds who live outside camps, Turkey's Disaster and Emergency Management Authority has said, fewer than 15 percent are in school.

No one can estimate how many work instead. Of around 125 Syrian households in Istanbul surveyed by Turkish charity Support to Life earlier this year, one in four households with children said at least one child could not go to school because the family depended on their pay. Half of those children worked in textiles.

Stephanie Gee, a fellow at Human Rights Watch, says Europe is "woefully ignoring" the problem of protecting children: "Unless Turkey can ensure that Syrian kids go to school, I think the whole question of effective protection is moot."

The European Commission declined to comment. An EU source said that the EU executive has "systematically pointed to the critical phenomenon of child labor" and urged Turkey to adopt measures to prevent it. Europe has committed tens of millions of euros to help get more Syrian children into schools.

An official in the office of Turkish President Erdogan said it's the West that should do more. Europe has accepted just around 850 Syrians for legal resettlement under the EU deal, and 31 Syrians have voluntarily returned to Turkey.

"Turkey is safer for refugees than any other country," he said. "Rights groups should use their time and energy to tell other governments to follow suit instead of downplaying our efforts." 

Children at work

Children have long been part of Turkey's labor force. In 2012, the last year for which data was available, Ankara said almost one million Turkish children aged between 6 and 17 worked. Many of them help make clothing, textiles or shoes, industries that contribute $40 billion a year to Turkey's economy and employ 2.5 million people  more than half of them as casual labor, according to unions.

Turkey exports $17 billion in clothing and shoes a year, most of it to Europe, especially Germany.

The country had been addressing its child labor problem in clothing over the past few years, according to Lotte Schuurman, communications officer at the Fairwear Foundation, which works to improve working conditions. "But with the coming of the Syrian refugees it's increased again."

Syrians, and especially Syrian children, are undercutting pay. In the southern city of Gaziantep, near the border with Syria, a 30-year-old Turk who gave his name as Selim said he used to earn 450 lira ($155) a week as a worker, but after Syrians came he set up his own business. 

He hired children to carry fabrics, bring tea, and stack up cut-out fabric. He now pays each child about $50 a week. "In the past, Turkish children worked here but now it's only Syrians," Selim said at the back of his workshop. "Turkish children did it as an apprenticeship but the Syrian children do it only for money."

Syrians say they earn between half and a third of the going rate for the same work done by Turks. Children are even cheaper.

On balance, cheap refugee workers are more of a bonus than a burden for Turkey, said economist Harun Ozturkler of the Centre For Middle Eastern Strategic Studies in Ankara. They boost profits, which lead to new investment. There are already signs, according to Ozturkler and the World Bank, that some Turkish workers are shifting to better paid jobs. Last year, the economy grew by 4 percent.

When Syrians arrive, they are supposed to register at their local police station and receive a temporary protection card allowing them to stay. Many people Reuters spoke to said they had not been able to register, partly because the going rate for a bribe is nearly $70, more than they can pay. The presidency official said there were no problems with registration and no fee was charged, but there may be delays in areas of high demand.

Until this year, Syrians were not entitled to work permits, so they worked informally. Ankara started to issue permits in January, but a government official said only a few people have qualified, because workers either need to be self-employed or obtain the support of their boss to apply. 

In Istanbul in April, a group of teenage boys spilled out of a tall, red-brick factory wheeling a massive metal cage full of rubbish toward a row of bins. The boys said they were not registered with the government.

The boys said they earned around $85 a week working through the night cleaning and boxing up shoes. "The boss is as nice as you can get," said Juma, 17. "When we are working until the morning he comes and cracks a joke or gives us some sandwiches. Other times, if we have an order which needs to be done fast, he shouts at us."

The youngest of them, Bashar, was 14 and had a wisp of a mustache. He arrived after fleeing Aleppo in early April, he said. His father took him to the border and paid a smuggler $300 to take Bashar across alone.

On the way, he said Turkish border guards shot at him. Human rights groups say dozens of people fleeing Syria have been injured, allegedly by border guards keen to help cap the number of new arrivals in Turkey. The presidency official denied these claims and Reuters was unable to independently confirm them.

Bashar said he planned to send half his pay to his family — father, mother, two sisters and two brothers. "They cannot work in Aleppo," he said. "They had to shut their shop."

Conflict textiles?

The boys said the shoes at their factory are labeled for DeFacto, Turkey's second largest apparel company with outlets in 11 countries, including Kazakhstan, Iraq and Russia. They said they did not know the name of the company they worked for. DeFacto said that using refugees as an illegal labor source is totally unacceptable. When undocumented workers are found in its supply chain, it said, it gives producers a chance to stop using them. If children are found, the relationship is severed immediately. 

Other multinational companies have found find Syrian children working for their suppliers. Firms including Esprit, Next and H&M said in a survey conducted earlier this year by NGO the Business and Human Rights Centre they had found Syrian children making clothes for them in recent years and acted to fix the situation. To avoid cutting off all income for the families, some say they try to arrange to combine work and schooling.

Next and H&M told Reuters they had not found any more Syrians since. Esprit said it recently found more unregistered Syrian adults — but not children – at a supplier factory. 

A spiderweb of subcontractors is one reason for the lack of estimates on how many Syrian refugee children are working in the textiles trades.

Western brands employ auditors and use barcode technology to check where their products are made, but it's hard to check everywhere. Sweatshop bosses and local entrepreneurs say that often the auditors come by appointment. That makes it easy to hide children, they add.

And some sweatshops are in places where there is fighting. 

Much of the mainly Kurdish southeast has been unstable since a ceasefire collapsed in summer 2015, resulting in hundreds of civilian deaths and 24-hour curfews. Border towns in the south, where many Syrians live and which have been shaken by violence including rocket fire from Islamic State militants, have lots of clothing workshops.

One district, Batman in the southeast, boasted in a 2014 publication it was "cheaper than China." Esprit said one of its suppliers had suggested shifting some production to the southeast; Esprit declined, "due to the risk of sending employees into a zone of instability." Activists say fighting has made it harder to audit in the south and southeast.

Shared middleman

The Awwal family lives and works in Zeytinburnu, an industrial district of multi-storey concrete apartment blocks in Istanbul. Textile workshops and outlets sit at street level. In Awwal's basement, Muna helps carry fabric between the seamsters. Her brother Muhamed works on the machines. The children work 11-hour days, Mahmud Awwal said; he doesn't pay them. 

Awwal got his temporary protection card soon after he arrived in 2013, he said. At first, he sub-contracted work from a Turkish man and tried to send the children to school. But he could not sign them up because he did not have papers to prove where he lived. The school told Awwal to bring a local official to vouch for him, but he could not persuade anyone to come. 

Then the Turkish worker short-changed him. His 13-year-old, Muhamed, started work at another sweatshop for about $60 a week, but some weeks the boy's boss would halve his pay. So Awwal took on his own son and tried to stick with fellow Syrians. His business is not registered, and neither are his workers.

His eldest son, Mustafa, who is now 15, found a job with a Kurd called Dogan. When there are enough orders to work every day, the boy's $100-a-week wage covers the family rent. 

Dogan also helped Awwal, introducing him to a middleman, "so now we are both doing different orders for the same brands."

If there are enough orders, Awwal and his children make about $800 a month from the family workshop. The clothes they make include T-shirt dresses for a local store. He showed a reporter a picture of a top with a poor quality Adidas label which he said he couldn't read. A spokesman for Adidas said the labels were clearly counterfeit.

A Turkish government official said: "Relevant ministries have already been working on this issue, and have punished the slightest abuse."

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