Factories in Turkey are employing Syrian refugee children as young as 10 to make clothes for the British high street, an undercover investigation by BBC’s Panorama has found. Broadcast Monday evening, the news program described the “very picture of Dickensian misery” as reporter Darragh MacIntyre described refugees earning barely more than a dollar an hour—well below the Turkish minimum wage—stitching, ironing, and folding garments for Marks & Spencer and the online retailer ASOS. Adult refugees were discovered working 12-hour days in a factory distressing jeans for Mango and Zara without adequate protection from the often toxic chemicals they were using. One of the factory workers told Panorama that refugees were so poorly treated that “if anything happens to a Syrian, they will throw him away like a piece of cloth.”

SEWING TO SURVIVE

Nearly 4 million refugees have fled to Turkey to escape the ongoing conflict in Syria. Almost unavoidably, many have ended up toiling for Turkey’s garment industry, which exports about $17 billion worth of ready-to-wear clothing and shoes a year and is widely considered Europe’s largest textile manufacturer.

“All the brands I contacted about this programme say they regularly inspect the factories making their clothes to guarantee standards,” MacIntyre said. “Some of these audits are unannounced. But the Syrian boys explained how the factories got round this problem.”


Human Rights Watch estimates that as many 400,000 Syrian children living in Turkey are not attending school.


When the auditors troop in, the children are hidden out of view until the coast is clear and they can return to their workstations.

Other factories may never receive visits from auditors because they’re part of a network of unregulated “shadow” factories that are subcontracted by the so-called “first-tier” facilities to make various garment components, typically without the knowledge of the commissioning brands.

“This is where you’ll find the worst abuses of Syrian refugees and children,” MacIntyre said. “I’ve spoken to some of the parents of these children. They don’t want their kids working, but they say they simply don’t have a choice.”

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Human Rights Watch estimates that as many 400,000 Syrian children living in Turkey are not attending school.

There are a limited number of work permits available to asylum-seekers in the country. Fewer than 0.1 percent of Syrians in Turkey are able to work legally.

Because parents rarely make enough through informal means, many families have to resort to child labor to ensure their survival.

One boy, just 13, told MacIntyre that he was currently unemployed. Tears rolled down his cheek as he said that he would die if he didn’t find work.

BBC, child labor, refugees, Turkey, Syria, Marks & Spencer, ASOS, Zara, Mango, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style, sweatshops, sweatshop labor, sweatshop workers, forced labor, human rights, workers rights

RESPONSES

A Marks & Spencer spokesperson said the program’s findings were “extremely serious” and “unacceptable to M&S.” The department store says it is offering permanent legal employment to any Syrians who were employed in the factories caught on camera.

“Ethical trading is fundamental to M&S,” the retailer said. “All of our suppliers are contractually required to comply with our Global Sourcing Principles, which cover what we expect and require of them and their treatment of workers. “We do not tolerate such breaches of these principles and we will do all we can to ensure that this does not happen again.”


A Marks & Spencer spokesperson said the program’s findings were “extremely serious” and “unacceptable to M&S.”


Similarly, a Mango spokeswoman said that the brand has “zero tolerance towards the practices described in the Panorama program.”

Mango said it conducted an “urgent and unannounced” audit of its Turkish facilities after the BBC informed it of the situation.

“Under no circumstances was the use of child labor of Syrian workers detected,” she said.

ASOS noted that the factory mentioned on the program had not been approved by the retailer. A spokesperson told the BBC that the children would be financially supported so they could return to school and the adult refugees provided a wage until they found legal work.

“We have implemented these remediation programs despite the fact that this factory has nothing to do with ASOS,” the spokesperson said.

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Zara’s owner, Inditex, told the BBC that it had found significant non-compliance in the factory before Panorama’s filming during an audit in June. “It is currently the subject of improvement measures,” a spokeswoman said.

At the same time, Inditex insisted that its factory audit process is a “highly effective way of monitoring and improving conditions.” The company also “strongly reject[s] any suggestion to the contrary.”

Still, labor-rights groups say that brands and retailers have a greater responsibility to prevent forced and illegal labor from entering their supply chains in the first place.

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“It’s not enough to say we didn’t know about this, it’s not our fault,” said Danielle McMullan, senior researcher at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre. “They have a responsibility to monitor and to understand where their clothes are being made and what conditions they are being made in.”

MacIntyre, the Panorama journalist, agreed. “All the brands involved say they are completely opposed to child labor and any exploitation of Syrian refugees,” he said. “But our investigation shows they sometimes don’t know how or where their clothes are being made. And until the brands know exactly who is making their clothes, then this type of exploitation is almost certain to continue.”

Orsola de Castro, a designer and co-founder of activism group Fashion Revolution summed up the point: “We need to look for better quality, not just in the products we buy, but in the lives of the people who make them.”

+ BBC News