Non-profit organization Business and Human Rights Resource Center (BHRRC) recently announced the results of a study into the exploitation of Syrian refugees working in the Turkish garment industry.

There are an estimated 250,000 to 400,000 Syrian refugees working illegally in Turkey.  Turkey is one of the largest producers of clothing sold in the US and Europe, with textiles accounting for nearly 20% of Turkey’s total exports by volume .  The country is also the third largest cotton importer, after China and Bangladesh.

The Turkish government announced mid-January that it will issue work permits to Syrian refugees.  Danielle McMullan, senior researcher at BHRRC, stated the permits would provide some legal protections for Syrian refugees, but that “[b]usinesses shouldn’t become complacent, they will need to know where Syrian refugees are in their supply chain and be diligent to the exploitation that has and will continue to take place.”

In December 2015, the BHRRC reached out to 28 of Europe’s largest garment brands sourcing from Turkey, requesting information on Syrian refugees in their supply chains.  Responses revealed most retailers lacked the visibility needed to identify any refugees that may be working without permits.  The brands are generally conducting announced or semi-announced audits on first tier suppliers.  However, there is less scrutiny further down the supply chain, with only four brands reporting Syrian refugees in supplier factories and a majority of brands not responding to the specific question.  Further, only 3 out of 28 brands reported having an active program of engagement with local partners such as refugee focused NGOs.  Most brands did not appear to have specific policies, practices and checks that identify, protect and support Syrian refugees in their supply chain.

However, there are a few leading companies directly tackling the issue of Syrian refugees vulnerable to exploitation in their supply chains.

H&M reported it has audited 100% of their first tier in suppliers in the last 12 months (40% of which was unannounced), conducted unannounced audits of 75% of Tier 2 suppliers in the last 2 years, and has started to audit Tier 3 suppliers in 2014.  The company has an engagement with NGOs Association of Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants (ASAM) and Association for the Support of Contemporary Living (CYDD) to provide remediation services to Syrian refugees.  H&M also has a policy of terminating business relationships if a supplier employs a migrant worker without a work permit.

Flickr /unitednationsdevelopmentprogramme

Next was one of the few brands to have made specific policy communications to suppliers regarding the support and protections to be provided to Syrian refugees in their factories.  Next’s Syrian Refugee Action Plan provides clear protocols for when Syrian refugees are identified, such as the factories should not expel any Syrian workers, the workers must not be subjected to threats, and factories should not obstruct access to remedy.  Next is working with NGOs ASAM and Human Resources Development Foundation (HRDF) to provide support to Syrian workers.  Next has also decided that due to problems associated with announced audits, all audits will be unannounced beginning in 2016.

H&M and Next are the only retailers that admitted to identifying child labor in their suppliers’ factories in Turkey.  Other brands identified adult Syrian refugee workers, no undocumented Syrian refugees, or remained silent on the question of Syrian refugee workers.  Phil Bloomer, executive director of BHRRC, said that “H&M and Next deserve praise for their openness, and their action to eliminate child labor in their supply chain in a responsible and caring fashion.”  He urged other companies to show equal vigor in identifying and protecting refugees identified in their supply chain.