PRESS RELEASE: Syrian refugees in Turkish Clothing factories: 38 high street brands quizzed on efforts to stop exploitation

Second round of outreach to garment brands reveals a positive shift in action, but many still not up to the task

London (25th October 2016) – 38 high street brands have been quizzed for the second time this year on the steps they are taking to protect vulnerable refugee workers making clothes in Turkey for European High Streets. A few brands – including NEXT and New Look– lead the way with better policy and practice and a larger group of brands have begun to take positive steps. However, abuse remains endemic as laggard companies do too little, too slowly.

Almost 3 million refugees have fled to Turkey to escape war and bloodshed in Syria.  This influx creates huge challenges for government, businesses and the local population.  Refugees seek security for themselves and their families.  With under-resourced humanitarian assistance, jobs and wages are critical to families’ well-being.  

The garment industry in Turkey has the potential to provide decent work for refugees but this will not happen with business as usual. 

Half of the garment brands contacted take some targeted action to address the risks refugees face. ASOS, C&A, Esprit, GAP, Inditex, KiK, LC Waikiki, Mothercare, New Look, NEXT, Otto Group, Primark, Tesco, Tchibo and White Stuff said they expect suppliers to support unregistered refugees to get work permits.  This is a positive shift given many brands previously cited a zero tolerance policy towards unregistered refugees working in factories, leading to their dismissal – the worst outcome for their welfare.

NEXT, New Look and Mothercare go further, with detailed plans that are triggered when a refugee is found to ensure they are protected and treated fairly.  They also pay the Gross Minimum Wage while Syrian’s are employed and do not yet have a work permit. This is an important step because it recognises that unregistered Syrian workers are unable to access social security.

Disappointingly, six brands did not respond to the questions - Gerry Weber, Lidl, Mexx, New Yorker, River Island and Sainsbury’s.  A number of other brands provided limited information: Arcadia, Burberry, s.Oliver, SuperGroup, VF Corp and Walmart only provided short statements.

Phil Bloomer, Executive Director, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre said:

“Business as usual in Turkey is not an option for high street brands. A handful of leading brands, like NEXT and New Look, demonstrate it is a moral imperative, and commercially viable, to treat refugees with respect. The great majority of brands are doing too little. They should learn rapidly from these leaders to outlaw abuse of refugees in their supply chains, and insist their suppliers provide decent work for all their workers. Syrian refugees are some of the most vulnerable people on our planet, they deserve better from the lucrative rag trade, and consumers will demand more as their plight is uncovered.”

The survey of brands reveals:

  • Exploitation of refugees remains endemic: the great majority of European fashion brands must act faster and more decisively to eliminate abusive exploitation of refugees from their Turkish supply chains. Their standard compliance methods of announced audits of their first tier suppliers are inadequate and discredited. Far more rigorous approaches should be adopted.
  • Positive shifts, including from Primark which has increased its monitoring programme in reaction to the issues faced by refugee workers, and H&Mwhich shifted its stance on the employment of undocumented workers from a zero tolerance policy to a pragmatic one which looks to support the refugee. Despite having a small supply base in Turkey, New Look has put in place a detailed plan to address exploitation, demonstrating far better targeted action than some brands that have a larger supply base in the country.
  • Increase in brands identifying refugeesTen brands found unregistered Syrian refugees in their supply chain. It is positive that some are being open about this issue and the challenges they face -  this is a welcome first step towards action to stop exploitation.
  • A minority of brands are taking important collective action on the issue through the Ethical Trading Initiative; others should follow suit.
  • Wider issues hinder progress: Without systemic change to purchasing practices and monitoring processes, even the most ambitious action to protect Syrian refugees by individual brands will likely fall short.   Companies need to pay decent prices and ensure greater certainty and predictability for suppliers to avoid undeclared sub-contracting to informal factories where the risks are highest.

The report recommends that garment brands sourcing from Turkey should: identify risks, implement a refugee protection strategy, review the impact of their purchasing practices on workers, and support civil society. Brands should make a long term commitment to source from Turkey and address the widespread exploitation of refugees in factories (including discrimination and poverty wages): this will benefit Syrian and Turkish workers alike.

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Notes to Editors

Media Contacts:

  • Danielle McMullan, UK & Ireland Researcher, mcmullan [at] business-humanrights.org, +44 (20) 7636 7774