Syrian refugee women train during a sewing workshop at the Oncupinar refugee camp for Syrian refugees next to the border crossing with Syria, near the town of Kilis in southeastern Turkey, Thursday, March 17, 2016.
AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis
Syrian women practice sewing at a Turkish refugee camp.
THE MIGRANT CRISIS

Major fashion brands are trying to stop their factories in Turkey from exploiting Syrian refugees

By Marc Bain

As Syrian refugees continue to pour into Turkey, desperate for any source of income, many are taking jobs in Turkey’s garment industry.

In February, the Business & Human Rights Resource Center reported that an estimated 250,000 to 400,000 Syrian refugees were working in Turkey illegally, including at apparel factories that supply well-known brands. While providing income to these migrants is undoubtedly helpful, those that get jobs without a work permit are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

To make sure refugees aren’t being exploited, Primark, the Irish chain known for its astoundingly cheap clothes, has said it doubled its factory inspections in Turkey.

“We know Syrian refugees are an issue in Turkey at the moment so we have gone to unannounced audits in Turkey,” Paul Lister, head of Primark’s ethical trading team, recently told Reuters.

Lister said Primark sources from about 100 suppliers in Turkey, accounting for about 5% of its production. It’s one of several major brands that produce clothes in the country, including Inditex, which owns Zara, and H&M.

In its report, the Business & Human Rights Resource Center asked 28 brands about the factories they contract with directly in Turkey, and found that some, including H&M, Next, Primark, and C&A had discovered refugees in a small number of their factories. H&M found one factory using refugee children to make clothes, and Next found two.

“In accordance with our policy on Syrian refugees in Turkey, we terminated this business relationship immediately,” a spokesperson for H&M said. “We then informed our NGO partner to get their support on the remediation activities.”

Primark said it discusses the situation with the supplier and puts a ”time bound” plan in place to resolve any problems. ”If we do not see the required level of engagement we expect on remediation, business relationships with suppliers are reviewed, and in some cases terminated,” the company said in a statement.

There are different points of view about what steps are best for brands if they do discover refugees without work permits in their supply chains. No brand wants its image tainted by child labor or human rights abuses, but at the same time these jobs, which often require little training, can be vital for migrants who have no other source of income.

H&M says it will terminate its relationship with any supplier found to be employing workers without a work permit. Others say the best approach is to continue working with the factory, but help workers to get the right permits and make sure they’re being paid properly. Ruth Vermeulen, senior international verification coordinator at the Fair Wear Foundation, told the Guardian that brands “should work together with the supplier towards formalising the workers’ status, however possible.”

Many companies, including Inditex, told the Business & Human Rights Resource Center they have programs in place to assist migrants in getting the proper documentation. Some of the camps set up by the Turkish government even run workshops to train Syrian refugees in marketable skills, such as sewing.