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With more than two million refugees from Syria now based in Turkey, the government has decided to address the issue of worker status, to protect refugees from exploitation and to open the door to legal employment opportunities.

Complex Situation

As of August 2016, it is estimated that 400,000 of Turkey’s Syrian refugees are working illegally. A further 7,000 have work permits, but few have passports or other documentation.

This influx of people seeking refuge and needing to support themselves and their families has created a range of issues for those consumer goods brands operating in, or buying from Turkey. Some brands are seeking to eliminate the use of illegal Syrian works by their subcontractors. Others are committed to supporting refugee labor in factories and farms as long as illegal working and exploitation are addressed.

Indeed, since migrant Syrian workers in Turkey, and elsewhere, are escaping conflict in Syria in order to survive, rather than simply seeking better economic conditions, many brands consider themselves to be in a position to offer ethical livelihoods to a vulnerable community, thereby making a positive contribution on a significant human rights issue.

Initially, Turkish authorities required Syrian refugees to enter 25 camps in 10 cities across the country, but in reality many have traveled elsewhere in search of work. Most have sought work in the textiles industry, as it requires few additional skills. A significant number also work in agriculture.

Exploitation Issues

Unfortunately, some factories have chosen to use these illegal workers because they are cheaper to employ: they are paid minimal wages, require no social security payments and receive no training. These workers are also at greater risk of experiencing poor working conditions and long working hours. At the same time, interested parties face challenges in compiling accurate information about the situation; for example, illegal Syrian workers may work at night and thereby escape the attention of government inspectors or auditors making announced visits during the day.

Proactive Approach to Legalize And Integrate

The Turkish government has chosen to take a new approach to Syrian migrant workers. It now seeks to legalize and integrate them.

Initially, Syrian refugees were issued with ID cards. However, in January 2016 the Ministry of Labor and Social Security (MoL) published its Regulation on Work Permits for Foreigners under Temporary Protection, as well as guidance documents informing employers of how to register workers. Under this regulation, migrants with temporary protected status were able to acquire a work permit after six months’ residence (and subject to a limit of 10% of a given company’s workforce). Subsequently, a new regulation was published in April 2016: the Regulation on Working by People Who Have International Protected Status and People Who Have International Protection Application, which applies specifically to Syrian migrant workers.

The Turkish authorities are also focusing on the integration of Syrian refugees through the provision of training and education, especially lessons in the Turkish language. With the EU, it has co-funded SYRIANS – Social Inclusion of Syrians under Temporary Protection in Turkey through Higher Education.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) has also responded to the Syrian crisis in Turkey; it seeks to address immediate humanitarian need and also create benefits for the longer term by encouraging decent work opportunities for refugees and host communities, and to protect vulnerable groups of Syrian refugees such as children and women.

Implications for Auditors and Others

The Business Social Compliance Initiative (BSCI) is a supply chain management system that supports companies to ensure social compliance and best practice in their global supply chains. It is an initiative of the Foreign Trade Association (FTA), and information generated through any BSCI audit can be shared among all BSCI members. Given the concern of its members about possible abuses and exploitation of Syrian migrant workers in Turkey, in August 2016 it issued its Guidance Document on Syrian Refugees Working in Turkey, summarizing key issues for social audits. It recommends action including the development of internal policies, the enhancement of audit procedures and effective action to address any issues identified.

Other schemes are also looking to drive sustainable solutions to this issue. The Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), a UK tripartite organization that helps its members to trade ethically and make a positive difference to workers' lives, has initiated a program in Turkey to assess different approaches and work with brands to find sustainable solutions. At the same time, Sedex is reinforcing guidance on auditing practices for SMETA to ensure that the exploitation of migrant workers is being fully investigated and reported so that it can be acted on. Initiative Clause Sociale (ICS) is also addressing the risk of the exploitation of unregistered Syrian refugees in textile supply chains and is communicating with its members and auditors to ensure that they don’t lose sight of the issue.

Although it does not have any official confirmation or figures, during on-site visits SGS has seen that some audited factories and other workplaces continue to use Syrian workers, who form 90% of those migrant workers encountered.

Companies need to be aware that the situation in Turkey is complex and that they may need to innovate in order to gain full information on prevalence of Syrian workers (such as by making greater use of unannounced or semi-announced audit visits or varying visit times) and also to gather accurate information from such workers despite translators not always being available. For example, SGS has developed specialist documents in Arabic and Sorani for use during on-site interviews with Syrian workers, which provides added support in verifying management claims on topics such as wages and conditions against those of workers.

SGS is available to discuss how it can help brands manage this issue through its specialist services.

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For further information, please contact:

Seda Bayer
Consumer and Retail
Manager , Supply chain Assessment & Solutions
Is Istanbul Plaza Baglar Mah.
34209 Istanbul, Turkey
t: +90 212 368 40 00

Pascale Oster
Consumer and Retail
Manager, Supply chain Assessment & Solutions
29, Avenue Aristide Briand
94110 Arcueil - France
t: +33 1 41 24 87 40


Syrian Refugees Working in Turkey
What to do with nearly three million Syrian refugees in Turkey?
ILO’s Response to Syrian Influx in Turkey
Projects Implemented by the Ministry
Social Responsibility Audits