Towering on a densely informal economy
The Syrian conflict has produced some six million refugees since 2011 and more than half of those war-fleeing people
Syrians in the Turkish labor market
As of June 2023, about 1.6 million Syrian refugees were entitled to a monthly stipend of 300 Turkish Liras (little more than ten Euros) under the Emergency Social Safety Net (ESSN) program funded by the European Union. However, if they take up formal employment, they are automatically removed from the coverage of that aid and can no longer receive it. That is a major incentive for Syrians not to obtain a work permit although they have legally been allowed to apply for one since 2016. In addition, those who nevertheless want to obtain such a permit and take up formal employment may only do so in the provinces where they are officially registered and the applications, which must be renewed every year, can only be made by their employers. Additionally, there is also a quota restriction for employers as, by law, they can only hire one Syrian refugee worker for every ten native employees. The result is not surprising: Although 2.2 million Syrian refugees in Türkiye are at a working age, only around one million are in the labor market, according to an estimation by the International Labor Organisation. The vast majority of them are employed in informal jobs: According to the latest statistics provided by the Turkish Ministry of Labor and Social Security
Not only adult Syrians are confronted with the risks associated with informal labor settings – such as exploitation. Children are, too – especially if they do not attend school. Of the 1.37 million school-age Syrian children in the country, 393,547 are out of school.
What are Sweatshops?
Sweatshops are mostly informal production facilities in which employees work under unsafe and unhealthy conditions such as little breaks, poor ventilation, insufficient lighting and high levels of noise exposure. They work long hours and earn low wages. Sweatshops are particularly widespread in the textile industry in Türkiye.
Child labor is yesterday's news in Türkiye. It is deeply rooted in society for various complex structural reasons such as poverty, low education, lack of social protection, rural-urban migration, limited opportunities to find work in formal employment.
Regardless of their age though, the Syrians who work in the informal economy in Türkiye are generally employed in low-paid and precarious jobs especially if they don't speak Turkish well and had no relevant work experience before. They often end up covering the kind of tasks that only few would be to do for the wages paid. At many sweatshops I have personally visited for my field research in Istanbul, those would be jobs like working at the noisiest and the darkest corner of some depot-turned-atelier at the basement of a poorly-maintained building. There, a typical work week is only six days long if you are lucky and comprises some 60 hours on the job. And far too often the remuneration falls short of the minimum wage.
Informality and workers’ rights
However, informality is not a new phenomenon for Türkiye either. According to various estimates, around one third of non-agricultural employment before the arrival of Syrian refugees was already informal. Before Syrians poured into the informal economy, Turkish and Kurdish workers as well as workers of other ethnic backgrounds had long been and are still suffering because of inhumane work conditions which are accompanied by little pay and precarious work conditions. Research shows that Syrian refugees, including refugee children, had even more disadvantageous positions particularly in the early years of conflict, which later slightly improved with them having more bargaining power vis-à-vis employers. However, they are still working at lower wages, which increases tensions between native workers and refugees in the textile manufacturing sector.
Informality and working conditions in the garment industry
The garment industry is a crucial sector for the Turkish economy. In 2022, the country was the sixth largest supplier of apparels in the world and the third biggest exporter of clothing to the EU, according to the Turkish Ministry of Trade. At the same time it is one of the main industries employing the refugee population as it heavily relies on informal production, cheap labor and precarious employment conditions. Competitive pressure in the textile industry is a crucial reason why informality is so pronounced in this sector in Türkiye.
The global garment industry's core problem is that it runs on very short production cycles and applies a lot of price pressure on contractors, which translate into a strong demand for low-cost and flexible labor. Research shows that although global brands directly contract the legal textile manufacturers, informal subcontractors are instantly invited as unacknowledged parties into that business relationship and the way informal and formal sector complements each other can be seen as an outcome of these time and cost pressures from the global contractors.
The elephant in the room
The bottom-line is that the global garment industry relies on a production line that is quick on the delivery side and light on the cost side, which under the current economic conditions appears to be only possible with mass employment of cheap labor in developing countries and emerging economies like Türkiye. The price pressure has gotten so much worse over the past few years that now even some Turkish brands are outsourcing their production needs to countries like Vietnam, Cambodia and Bangladesh, where labor is even cheaper. Therefore, what is required is a collective effort that involves 1) governments with strong mandates that strictly enforce laws prohibiting such labor rights violations, 2) global brands that are firmly committed to making sure none of what they sell is coming from an unregulated contractor, and 3) consumers who would never buy a piece of clothing that has been produced under exploitative conditions. Given that this is an alliance that seems almost impossible to assemble and given the persistent underlying structural problem of poverty outside the developed world, a quick fix to the current system of abuse and exploitation seems illusionary.