If we want to understand the current particular conditions of Syrian refugees in Turkey and their plight, we need to look at it through the lens of the complex migratory history of the country

Turkish child labour intensified
with Syrian refugees

8 min read
Foto: Flickr/ ILO in Asia and the Pacific

Western newspapers reported on the news of Syrian child labour in Turkish textile factories that are part of the supply chains of international/European brands like H&M, Next, Dorothy Perkins, amongst others. As we approach a deal between the EU and Turkey on the Syrian refugee, I would like to shift the attention from high politics to the real world of migrants in Turkey and deconstruct the media’s discourse on Syrian child labour in textile. 

Without downplaying the particular and painful conditions of Syrian refugees in Turkey or their exploitation in the textile industry, I want to go a bit deeper in the discourse on “Syrian refugees in Turkey supplying Europe with fast fashion”. What has discomforted me in the reporting is the silence on the longer term issues and that Turkish child labour did not start with Syrian refugees – though it has been brutally intensified – but has been going on for more than a decade with other groups of migrants (Bulgarian Turks, Meskhetian Turks, Turkish and Kurdish inner migrants).

Only one newspaper - the BBC news - among the eight I checked states that “The overall number of Syrian children working illegally is unclear. However, Turkey did not have a good record on child labor even before nearly 2.5 million Syrian refugees arrived in the country. According to the latest figures, half a million Turkish children are also working in different sectors, despite the fact that child labor is banned under Turkish law”. My suggestion is that we should locate the Syrian child labour cases within the existing conditions of children in Turkey. This will enable us to point to the companies’ responsibility to monitor the use of child labour - regardless of the children’s nationality - and to link the case to the general exploitation of female and child labour in developing countries’ textile industry.   

According to Said (2003, p.10): “No one has ever devised a method to detach the scholar from the circumstances of life, from the fact of his involvement (conscious or unconscious) with a class, a set of beliefs, a social position or from the mere activity of being a member of a society”.

Substantiating Said’s statement, as a Turkish woman with a peasant-migrant-working class background as well as a social sciences student, the recent news about Syrian child labour in Turkey became the last straw for me. I have both personal experience and academic interest in the current socio-economic and political conditions of Turkey and the processes Syrian refugees face. Here, however, I do not separate my academic from my personal experiences. Instead, I combine them - as Dorothy Smith, Chandra Mohanty and many other feminist scholars did before – to establish connection that offer some insights into the understanding of Syrian child labour in Turkey. I rely both on my own past experience and on qualitative data gathered in the summer and autumn 2015 for my PhD project which explores everyday lives of women. Pertinent as in Turkey, informal textile work is a part of the everyday experience of many working class women and sometimes their children.

I grew up in a typical squatter housing (gecekondu) neighbourhood, the kind which in Turkey are established by migrants moving from rural to urban areas. As a common illegal type of settlement, these neighbourhoods have always been receptive to migratory flows that are the outcome of political clashes in the region, ranging from immigration waves of Bulgarian and Meskhetian Turks, to the forced inner migration of Kurdish citizens as a consequence of the conflict opposing the state and PKK or of ongoing wars in neighbouring countries.

With this in mind, we need to remember that ever since the establishment of the Republic of Turkey it has had to face migratory waves from the former Ottoman Empire, and has to a large extent been unable to implement sufficient levels of formal organisation and control both on inner and outer migration. As a result of this, migrants have been forced to forge their own path not only for housing, but also to earn a living. The global economic processes of recent years combined with the increasing numbers of forced migration, ‘finding one’s own way’ is becoming increasingly arduous. Nevertheless, neighbourhoods like the one I grew up in are still available for migrants to find cheap housing and informal jobs.

In 1993 my family migrated to Bursa, a metropolitan city of 2.8 million inhabitants in the West of the country, and the textile capital of Turkey since the Ottoman period. At this time, the informal textile workshops were beginning to open in our neighbourhood, but migration was not a new phenomenon. When I was a child women worked in seasonal jobs, such as in the fields, food packing factories or small textile workshops. I remember their talks about Bulgarian migrants in the city, about working together in these workshops and factories and I found these memories were reflected in the story of a middle-aged migrant woman from an eastern city of Turkey with Kurdish Alewite background:

“I started to work when I was 13 years old. I worked for 13 years. I was child, but I was working. There were some other children of my age as well. They were also from Bulgaria, [muhacir] migrants. At that time, there were many people who started to work after graduating from primary school”.

For three months of my summer break I would work at least 10 hours a day in textile workshops or fruit packing factories. I was lucky because I continued in school, however I had friends from primary school who left education and worked full-time alongside children as young as 10-13 years old.

After 2005, Meskhetian Turks migrated from Georgia to Turkey, with large numbers settling in Bursa. Once again, women working in the informal textile workshops started to speak about their Meskhetian workmates; their difficulties and their illegal conditions. I remember my mother coming home every evening and crying whilst talking about her Meskhetian friend whose daughter wanted to study but could not because they didn’t have enough money or a residence permit.

The year 2005 is a particularly important date for the increase of informality in the textile sector. According to the Textile and Garment Industry Sector Report and Local Strategy published in 2014 by the Bursa Chamber of Commerce and Industry, “the deregulations in the world trade by 2005 forced the textile sector of Turkey to compete with China and other Asian countries. The cheap labour available in these countries was constraining for the sector in Turkey… However, despite the competitive pressure of these countries, Turkey amplified the volume of its textile export” (p.9). Textile has been the leading sector in Bursa’s economy; it has the largest registered labour ratio and the highest number of firms in the city. However, the report states that “the main problem of the sector is the small scale of textile firms and fashion manufacturing” (p.10). Although the Report does not talk about informal labour (considering that the countrywide unregistered employment rate in 2014 was 35.7% and the employment rate of 6-17 age group was estimated at 5.9% in 2012, an increase of some three thousand children compared to the figures of 2006) it is not difficult to estimate that there is a considerable number of informal and child labour in the textile sector in Bursa.

Bursa is just one of the metropolitan cities in which small scale textile workshops are located. A young mother and Kurdish migrant told me she started to work in these workshops in 2004 at the age of 9, when her family moved to Kocaeli, another metropolitan city close to Istanbul. She has 7 sisters and none of them have attended school - all have had to work to make a living. Here, she describes the more recent working conditions:

“Workers are not insured anymore. Work is taken home, and workers actually work in their flats and all the dust of the fabrics stays in the house and that is why my brother is sick… there is a machine, you attach the socks and once the socks are sewed, the dust comes out and it is a reason to get sick. Many do this work. Since there is this kind of work, many people haven’t been able to study, they had to leave the school… It’s very common. It is almost in every flat”.

Nowadays in my neighbourhood, the maintenance workers we call to fix things are Syrian, my relatives’ workmates are Syrian, my hairdresser has hired two Syrian girls in addition to her local underage girl workers, and there is a Syrian girl in the bakery, around 14/15 years old. Almost all the 65 females I came in contact with during my fieldwork have Syrian neighbours who have to work in order to survive.

Another case I heard about shows the other side of the picture. A woman living in a high security estate told me that her husband and his brother decided to move their textile business to a working class/migrant district of Istanbul where they can increase their profit by employing Syrian women and children. Because Istanbul is an uncontrollably expanding destination for migrants, this level of exploitation is increasing in comparison to other cities.

In a nutshell, if we want to understand the current particular conditions of Syrian refugees in Turkey and their plight, it should be done against the broader background of more remote historical conditions. Rather than solely focus on the here-and-now, we need to look at it through the lens of the complex migratory history of the country – something which it might be useful for Europe to remember.