PRESS RELEASE: Garment brands not acting fast enough to safeguard Syrian refugees from exploitation in their supply chains

Outreach to 28 garment brands sourcing from Turkey reveals a few are tackling the plight of Syrian refugees in their supply chains head-on.  For others, refugee workers appear out of sight and out of mind.  

1st February (London) – Few garment brands sourcing from Turkey are taking adequate steps to ensure vulnerable Syrian refugees are not fleeing from conflict into exploitative working conditions, says Business & Human Rights Resource Centre. 

As leaders from countries around the world prepare to meet in London to discuss responses to the Syrian conflict - including ways to create jobs for refugees which offer hope for the future - worrying reports highlight pitiful wages, child labour and sexual abuse for some Syrian refugees working without permits. 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.

Nevertheless, unprecedented collaborative action by brands led the Turkish government to announce in mid-January 2016 that it will issue work permits to Syrian refugees – lack of work permits is a key source of vulnerability. This is a positive step in which brands played an important part, however it comes with restrictions.  Many refugee-workers are likely to remain illegal, working in Turkey’s burgeoning informal workforce.

In light of these risks, a few brands are taking decisive action to protect refugees in their supply chain; others appear to be far less willing to act. 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.

Business & Human Rights Resource Centre’s survey of 28 brands reveals:

  • Targeted approach lacking: Only three brands - NEXT, Inditex and White Stuff - could point to specific policy communications to suppliers regarding the treatment of refugees that expressly prohibited discrimination and provided specific support to these workers.

  • Out of sight out of mind - auditing processes not fit for purpose: Brands are generally conducting announced or semi-announced audits on their first tier suppliers, with less scrutiny further down their supply chains. Both the nature and scope of these audits are unlikely to uncover serious abuses. Only 4 brands said they had detected Syrian refugees in supplier factories, 6 brands said they had not detected any, and 18 did not respond to this question or have not responded to us yet.

  • Good government engagement but more needed with civil society and trade unions: It is encouraging that a number of the brands reported lobbying the Turkish Government both directly and through the Fair Labor Association and Ethical Trade Initiative for work permits for Syrian refugees. Most brands do not report that they engage with partners such as local trade unions and refugee-focused NGOs, who have expert knowledge of the needs of this vulnerable group, to prevent and remedy abuse.

  • A notable few take action to protect refugees: NEXT and H&M took concerted action to protect child refugees found in their factories. NEXT found adult refugees in factories and followed their action plan to protect them from dismissal and exploitation. C&A, Puma, Primark and White Stuff referenced principled approaches, but not a specific action plan.

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. Brands should:

  • Develop an action plan which sets out and communicates clear policies that prohibit discrimination and provide support to Syrian refugees. These should also prevent automatic dismissal.

  • Increase scrutiny of their supply chain beyond the first tier of factories in order to detect exploitation and undeclared subcontracting.  In addition to extending the scope of the suppliers subject to audit, brands should move quickly to 100% unannounced audits.

  • Work with expert Turkish partners and trade unions who can assist them in identifying risk and providing remedy to refugees that have been exploited.  These partners should have expertise in assisting women and children refugees.

Phil Bloomer, executive director of Business & Human Rights Resource Centre said:

“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.”

Sharan Burrow, General Secretary, International Trade Union Confederation said:

“The right to work with equal treatment for refugees everywhere is fundamental. To resolve the exploitation of Syrian refugees in Turkish factories, business must engage with local unions.”

Martin Buttle, Apparel & Textiles Lead at Ethical Trading Initiative said:

“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.”



Notes to Editors

Media Contacts:

  • Joe Bardwell, Corporate Accountability & Communications Officer, bardwell [at], +44 (20) 7636 7774, +44 7966 636 981 

  • Danielle McMullan, UK & Ireland Researcher, mcmullan [at], +44 (20) 7636 7774


Who did we contact and did they respond?

Responded fully


General statement


Indicated they will respond


Not yet responded











White Stuff







Marks & Spencer



New Look*

Otto Group*


LC Waikiki




River Island




 *Edit (5 February 2015) Since we published this briefing, Esprit, New Look, and Otto Group have responded. VF has said they are preparing a response.


  • 10 out of 28 companies responded directly to the questionnaire.

  • 8 out of 28 companies declined to respond to the questionnaire, but supplied statements briefly setting out their approach to supply chain management and this issue.

  • 5 out of 28 companies have not yet responded, and 5 have indicated they will respond.

  • Policy: 3 companies (Inditex, NEXT, and White Stuff) shared specific policy communications regarding protections and support for Syrian refugees in their factories in Turkey.

  • Audits: 4 brands reported identifying any Syrian refugees in supplier factories during their auditing and monitoring process in 2015.

  • Audits: 6 brands reported finding no undocumented Syrian refugees in their supply chain.

  • Audits: Most respondents said they had audited a high proportion of first tier suppliers in the last 12 months, 12 companies reported 100% coverage. However, most audits were announced or “semi-unannounced,” raising the potential risk of compliance issues being hidden by suppliers.

  • Remediation: 2 out of 28 brands reported having a specific plan with steps to address abuse, discrimination and exploitation of refugees.  

  • Remediation: 3 brands reported working with refugee-specific NGOs to deliver remediation services and training to Syrian refugees found in supply chains.

  • Engagement: 13 out of 28 brands cited engagement with either the Ethical Trading Initiative and/or the Fair Labor Association – both of which lobby the Turkish government over the right to work for refugees.

Business & Human Rights Resource Centre is an international NGO that tracks the human rights impacts (positive & negative) of over 6500 companies in over 180 countries making information available on its nine language website. We seek responses from companies when concerns are raised by civil society.  The response rate is over 70% globally