Next and H&M discover Syrian refugee children working in Turkish garment factories

A report by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre in February that aimed to establish what garment brands are doing to protect Syrian refugees from being exploited in their supply chains was widely covered by mainstream media when it was revealed that both Next and H&M had discovered Syrian refugee children working in Turkish garment factories.

The Resource Centre reveals there have been reports of discrimination, low wages, child labour and sexual abuse for some Syrian refugees working without permits, adding: “There is a real risk that these abuses could occur in the Turkish clothing factories that supply Europe’s high streets. An estimated 250,000 to 400,000 Syrian refugees work illegally in Turkey, making them vulnerable to abuse.”

A questionnaire to uncover what is being done to detect and prevent abuses and exploitation was developed by the Resource Centre in consultation with trade unions, the Fair Labor Association, the Ethical Trading Initiative and local advocates. Of the 28 brands sent the questionnaire in December last year, only 10 sent responses before the February briefing, with 12 declining to respond but sending brief statements instead.

Next and H&M were two of the brands that replied to the questionnaire, and both had taken action to ensure the children were protected. Many of the companies contacted didn’t respond to questions about undocumented Syrian refugees in their supply chain.

The Turkish government announced in mid-January that it will issue work permits to Syrian refugees, which is a positive step, but the Resource Centre says more still needs to be done: “Given the scale of reported abuses and exploitation, garment brands must strengthen how they detect abuse and take decisive action to combat exploitation of vulnerable Syrian workers in a principled way.”

Martin Buttle, apparel and textiles lead at Ethical Trading Initiative, commented: “The civil war in Syria has presented exceptional circumstances for brands sourcing from Turkey. ETI member brands have taken action and collaborated around ethical standards, including lobbying the government on work permits and engaging with their suppliers, but it is clear that more still needs to be done. Refugees, particularly women, have a right to fair and equal treatment in the workplace and factories must remain free from child labour. That requires additional government and company action.”