Turkey has the one of the biggest textile and garment industries around the world, due to the workforces’ attractive ability to manufacture products in short time periods. Almost every week the newest apparels are being displayed in shop windows, thus increasing already excessive consumer demand. In Turkey, businesses usually operate using subcontracts with small factories in order to fulfil retailer requests. Much of the time, these factories might be unregistered and even illegal sweatshops. Moreover, because suppliers sign series’ of subcontracts with these factories, retailers are often oblivious as to who the original producers are. With such lack of monitoring and inspection by the government and brands themselves, hazardous working conditions and the use of child labour in these factories is the harsh reality.
Over the last three years, the huge influx of Syrian refugees has had a dramatic effect on the sector. After the 2011 Syrian Civil War, many people migrated to neighbouring countries, and where possible, to Europe. However, the subsequent deal between Turkey and the EU which banned Syrians from entering some of the European countries has found many stuck mainly in Greece and Turkey, separated from their families and alone.
What is the status of Syrian refugees?
Turkey is hosting nearly three million Syrians according to statistics of the Ministry of Interior. Almost half are children, making Turkey the largest hosting country in the world. After the massive influx in 2011, Turkish legislation was failing to acknowledge the basic rights of the Syrian migrants due to the country’s reservation on the 1951 Refugee Convention. This convention ensures rights and protection to the refugees in the country they settled. However, due to Turkey’s reservation, only EU citizens could possess refugee status, others will be accepted as foreigners which is a status ensures much more limited rights. As a result, Syrian people could not claim any rights or protection according to that convention. Since 2011, the government has enacted a series of new laws regarding their status and rights in time gradually, for example, last year Law No. 6735 International Labour Force has been adopted.
One of the first benefits accessed by Syrian migrants was the Governments introduction of the Law on International Protection and Foreigners which enables them to apply for work permits, and access education and health services, thus affording them some temporary protection.
However, there was a delay in the enactment of the Regulation on Work Permits of Foreigners under Temporary Protection, no. 29594, therefore, illegal work became a necessary means for survival. Although, welcomed by Turkish employers within the textile industry, the absence of regulatory authority placed Syrian migrants in a vulnerable state; forced to accept lower wages and longer hours of work. Even the employment of children was being favoured over employment of legal Turkish citizens.
Issuing work permits to Syrians
Before applying for a work permit, Syrian migrants must first, under Regulation on Work Permits of Foreigners under Temporary Protection, no. 29594, apply for temporary protection. This process alone can take up to several months. Human Rights Watch have conducted interviews with Syrian refugees which a few people stated that all this time period of waiting can be reduced in exchange for money illegally. Furthermore, refugees can only apply for work permits after six months of settling into a certain area which they want to work. Also, many Syrians cannot speak Turkish and a shortage of translators in the government offices made practical the regulation requires that applications for work permits have to be completed by the applicant’s employer. Lastly, there is a quota which restricts the number of Syrians who can work, for example, out of every ten workers, only one can be of Syrian ethnicity. Statistics acquired by the Ministry of Labour and Social Security shows that over 4,000 work permits were granted to Syrians in 2015 just over 5,000 in the first half of 2016. Still considering the number of refugees living in the country, it falls short for meeting the need for sustaining decent and legal labour standards to Syrians in the country.
New Law No. 6735 International Labour Force
The new law no. 6735 came into force in the second half of 2016 and rescinded the old one. This law covers more people as it is for foreigners in general. Syrian refugees under temporary protection are also bound by this law.
This law is applicable to a number of different categories. These include those who wish to work in Turkey; currently work in Turkey; applicants for occupational retraining; interns, or temporary cross-border service providers in Turkey. The Ministry of Labour and Social Security will determine international workforce policies and work permits will be granted to applicants accordingly. Furthermore, for professional positions within sectors such as education and health, prior authorisation must be granted by the related ministry.
Another innovation regarding work permits, a new card called ‘’turquoise card’’ will be given to foreigners according to their education level, professional experience, their contribution to science and technology, its business effect to the country’s economy and employment rate. In this way, card holders can benefit from indefinite working rights after three years - also dependants such as spouses and children may possess residency permits.
However, similarly with the Law no. 29594, Syrian refugees under temporary protection can only apply after six months of applying for that status.
Also with the new law, during an inspection of competent authority, if a non-permit holder is found within the workplace, he or she will be subjected to a penalty and also reported to the Ministry of Interior to begin the deportation process. This punishment for refugees is an unfair and excessive reaction as it is the employers who leave them with no option but to work without the permits – instead they only face a fine.
Unfortunately, current regulations are insufficient in prevent human rights abuses because government officials are inconsistent in carrying out inspections to find corrupt employers, and sometimes do not even attempt to investigate. Firstly, if Syrians begin to receive minimum living wage in practice, among many other things, this would reduce issues like child labour. Sadly, it looks like there is a long way to ensure decent life standards to Syrian refugees.
Ozge Okay- She is a LL.M candidate in the University of Greenwich on International and Commercial Law also doing an internship in Business, Human Rights and the Environment Research Group.