If you happen to be in Italy and mention the refugee crisis you may end up starting an accidental debate revolving around the possibility that criminal organisations may be making money off it. There have indeed been investigations into the contracts and deals to manage migrants reception. Yet, organised crime groups may not be the only ones thinking that migrants are not an emergency, but a lucrative business.
The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRCC), an international NGO that tracks the human rights impacts of over 6,500 companies in over 180 countries, currently carried out an analysis over 28 garment brands sourcing from Turkey. The country is the third largest supplier of clothing to Europe after China and Bangladesh. The garment sector is the second largest industry in Turkey, even though its textile workshops are often unregulated, with unregistered workforce with no contracts or employment benefits manufacturing garments in poor working conditions.
The BHRCC survey contained 18 questions divided in different themes, from policy and risk assessment to remediation, capacity building and shareholders' engagement (you can download all the answered questionnaires from this link). The complete results of the survey (see this pdf document) revealed that a few leading companies (NEXT, White Stuff, and C&A, among the others) are trying to take action against the possibility that vulnerable Syrian refugees - and children as well - get illegally employed and therefore exploited in their supply chains.
H&M and NEXT actually admitted they had found Syrian refugee children working in their supplier factories in Turkey. To the question "Has your company identified supplier factories employing Syrian child refugees in 2015?", H&M answered "Yes, 1 unit. After identifying child labor, we informed CYDD (Association for the Support of Contemporary Living) to get their support on the remediation activities. CYDD contacted the families of the children and created the action plan aligning with our policy by identifying the most suitable education option based on the needs and aspirations of the children." NEXT explained: “We have identified Syrian child refugees in two factories. It has been mandatory (and checked through our local teams) that our child labour remediation programme has been followed in all cases."
In breach of Turkish and international laws that forbid those under 12 from working and bans children aged 13-14 from all but light work, many children are actually employed in Turkey as cheap labour on farms and factories.
There have been a few brands that directly or through the Fair Labor Association and Ethical Trade Initiative put pressure on the Turkish government that announced in mid-January that it will issue work permits to Syrian refugees.
It must be noted, though, that legislation is strict and that work permits won't solve every problem: a refugee has got to wait 6 months after registering in Turkey under "temporary protection status", and the work permit will be valid only in the city where they first registered, which may not be the best place where to find work opportunities, such restrictions may therefore mean that there will be a high number of Syrian workers still willing to work illegally.
Reports highlight that abuses may be occurring in Turkish clothing factories supplying European High Street retailers, there is indeed a real risk that Syrian reufugees working withour permits in Turkey (the estimated numbers go between 250,000 and 400,000) may be receiving pitiful wages and that children may be exploited.
The BHRRC revealed that only three brands - NEXT, Inditex and White Stuff - shared specific policy communications to suppliers regarding the treatment of refugees that prohibited discrimination and provided support to these workers.
Most of the other brands are not investigating the presence of refugees with no working permit at specific levels of the supply chain (critical sustainability risks are found deeper down the supply chain), while 4 brands said they had detected undocumented adult Syrians in the supplier factories; 6 brands said they had not detected any refugees, and the majority have not yet responded to this specific question by the BHRRC.
"Fourteen of 28 brands that the Resource Centre approached with questions have not responded yet, or sent short statements. Others cited zero tolerance policies on the employment of undocumented workers as evidence that they do not exist in their supply chain", states the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre.
Besides, most brands do not have active programmes of engagement with local partners such as trade unions or refugee focused NGOs, who have expert knowledge of the needs of this vulnerable group to prevent and remedy abuse.
Some people may argue that, in a major global emergency and when leaders from countries around the world struggle to find a solution to the crisis, it is almost a marginal thought to discuss what goes on in garment factories in Turkey.
Yet, this is a relevant issue and it represents a chance for garment producers to lead the path towards real and tangible change by starting to look at workers and consumers as human beings and not as numbers to generate higher and higher profits.
Indeed, as Phil Bloomer, executive director of the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, states in an official press release, "The treatment of Syrian refugees in their supply chains is a litmus test for high street brands' concern for human rights in the clothes they sell across Europe. It is also the key way that business can contribute to solving the refugee crisis. Yet for many, refugee workers are out of sight, out of mind. The fact that a small number of brands, like NEXT, White Stuff, and C&A, are taking decisive action highlights the need for other brands to step up and do the same."
The BHRRC suggests that, while these may be exceptional circumstances, a series of solutions must be taken, among them increase scrutiny, organise unannounce audits and closely work with expert Turkish partners and trade unions who can assist the brands in identifying risk and providing remedy to refugees who have been exploited, while guaranteeing women a right to fair and equal treatment in the workplace and making sure that factories remain free from child labour.
According to international law, refugees are entitled to international protection, but, as things stand, it looks like some may be thinking about the refugee crisis as a financial opportunity.
The Syria Donor Conference - a joint initiative organised by officials from the United Kingdom, Germany, Norway, Kuwait and the United Nations - is on today in London. There are quite a few points on the agenda: the plight of the Syrian people, raising funds for the needs of 13.5 million vulnerable and displaced people inside Syria and the 4.39 million people forced to seek refuge in neighbouring countries; redirecting aids on to jobs, training and education for refugees (currently 700,000 Syrian refugee children are not getting any education) while identifying long-term funding solutions.
Clothing brands do not sit in government and shouldn't be taking political decisions, but they are at the moment called to answer to many emergencies such as garment factory workers being mistreated in the hostels inside their factory as recently revealed in a report (see pdf here) by the India Committee of the Netherlands, a labor rights NGO, and improving the safety conditions of workers in factories (the latest fire occurred on Tuesday at the Matrix Sweater Factory, an overseas supplier for H&M based in Gazipur, Bangladesh, inspected in May 2014 by a US-based Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety and discovered lacking adequate fire doors, sprinklers, fire alarms, and fire hoses, among other deficiencies).
So, while international brands can't really sit at the same table as the UN or other political entities, the time has come for them to take decisive action on labor and safety issues and on the impact of the refugee crisis as well, and collaborate both with the authorities and the trade unions to ensure better living conditions for everybody. The time has also come for us consumers to be more vigilant and make sure that the brands' greed for profit and our collective greed for fast trends do not contribute to create even worse conditions for people working in factories all over the world.
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