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A year after quake disaster, Syrians in Türkiye battle unemployment and exploitation

‘As long as the workers’ struggle does not turn into action and a public reaction, the brands don’t move a hair.’

Workers at Vera Ambalaj are pictured during a strike. They are photographed mid chanting behind a banner. Naomi Cohen/TNH
Workers at Vera Ambalaj, including Muhammed Ramazan (third from left) went on strike in October to demand wage increases and better working conditions.

For the first time in his 10 years in Türkiye, Muhammed Ramazan has a job with health insurance. He helps maintain machines that make cardboard spools at a factory in Gaziantep, a city known for its textile factories.

But since a series of earthquakes struck a year ago, claiming more than 55,000 lives in southeastern Türkiye and northern Syria, the insurance has been of little help. As one of roughly 1.8 million registered Syrians living in the earthquake zone in Türkiye, Ramazan and his family were last in line to receive aid, which was first distributed to Turkish citizens. Refugees, the vast majority of them Syrians, reported discrimination in relief efforts, including physical and verbal attacks, and evictions from temporary housing.

The epicentre of the first and strongest 7.9-magnitude earthquake on 6 February 2023 was only 30 kilometres from Gaziantep. The area where the quakes hit was home to 14 million people, which included some 2 million Syrian refugees. About 9 million were affected, and 3 million were displaced. Those who didn’t try to go back to Syria or move elsewhere now mostly live in shelters, which are poorly heated, lack sanitation, and are far away from basic services. Few receive cash assistance.

This is a map of the region that struck Turkiye and Syria on 6 February 2023. The epicenter is marked with a locator dot and so are the cities that were most affected, including: Gaziantep and Kahramanmaraş in Turkiye and Azaz, Afrin, Idlib and Aleppo in Syria.
This is a map of the region that was struck by an earthquake Turkiye and Syria on 6 February 2023. The epicenter and the main aftershock is marked with a locator dot and so are the cities that were most affected, including: Gaziantep and Kahramanmaraş in Turkiye and Azaz, Afrin, Idlib and Aleppo in Syria.

The unemployment rate of refugees living in the area around Gaziantep has soared from 10% before the earthquakes to 40% today, according to the Turkish Red Crescent.

Ramazan, who has four children, feels his family is treated little better than the livestock kept, even in urban areas like Gaziantep, for their milk and meat. “My boss looks after a calf here,” he said. “The price of the feed that he gives that calf is more than my salary.” 

He joined his 59 colleagues in a strike at the Vera Ambalaj factory in October to demand 15,000-16,000 Turkish lira a month – a salary below the poverty line for a single person, and not enough to feed a family the size of his. The Vera Ambalaj workers are demanding severance packages for their colleagues who have been laid off, and fairer working conditions. They also said they deserved the right to a week of paid leave after the earthquakes. Ramazan said this was unpaid and subtracted from their annual allowance. 

Still, Ramazan counts himself lucky. At least his workplace is legal.

Roughly one in three Syrians working in Türkiye is employed by the apparel sector, and about half of all textile workers are hired informally. Gaziantep ranks second in textile exports after Istanbul, and many refugees who worked in textile or leather factories back in Syria have found work in the industry. Formal factories also hire Syrians under the table, and very few are able to secure a work permit.

While most Syrians have temporary protection, many still don't have permits, and more still have not had their residency permits renewed. The Turkish government is currently cracking down on those without papers, deporting tens of thousands of migrants and refugees over the past year.

“The anxiety of making ends meet is certainly not just a concern for local workers,” Sevda Karaca, an opposition Labour Party MP representing Gaziantep, told The New Humanitarian. “Especially in informal work, considering that migrants are made to work for less, it’s clear that those who suffer the most from this economic situation are migrant workers.” 

‘They have to stay silent’

Since the earthquakes hit Kahramanmaraş and Gaziantep last year, garment and textile workers in Türkiye say they have been overworked and undercompensated to make up for time and personnel lost to the earthquakes. The more than 800 apparel factories in the area supply global brands like Zara, Mango, H&M, IKEA, Calvin Klein, and Armani.

“[Suppliers] can’t stop production since they’re working with the biggest companies and have large exports,” said Adem Maarastawi, a Syrian human rights activist who has also worked in Türkiye’s textile industry. “So they have to bring in migrants from inside or outside of the city in order to meet the deadlines and keep prices low.” 

Maarastawi told The New Humanitarian that many factories are hiring Syrians and are making them work for less than their Turkish colleagues. 

“They work for a while. Then they’re not given their money – their salaries or their food stipends. Then they tell them to go,” he said of these Syrian workers. “And they can’t do anything. They have to stay silent.” 

While migrants in the earthquake zone are almost all Syrian, other refugee populations, including Afghans and Iranians, face similar conditions in other cities.

Even those with papers have limited labour and health rights, so they often work in unsafe conditions with no job stability. A growing number of migrant children are also working to make up for lower salaries and a higher cost of living. If they protest a lack of payment, employers may threaten to have them deported.

“We’re not able to look after our children or our homes. We’re struggling a lot. That’s why we went to the streets.” 

The Clean Clothes Campaign, an alliance of garment industry labour unions, published a report on 4 January based on interviews with 130 workers in the area. The Syrian respondents said they were pressured to show up to work immediately after the earthquakes. Many factory managers threatened to fire those who didn’t work, and only distributed food aid to those who came to the factory. Many workers who could only find post-quake housing far away and lacked transportation were unable to report for work, the report said. About half of respondents said they now rent a home – at a time when rents have tripled – while the rest are in tents and temporary housing, or are staying with friends or relatives.

The respondents also said that because of a ban on layoffs in the months after the earthquakes, workers who moved or were forced to quit did not get their severance packages even if they worked in the same factory for decades. Those who were unable to go to work for an extended period – more than half of the respondents’ homes were damaged – should have had the right to a minimum wage salary and state aid of 133 Turkish lira a day for three months, but more than a third answered that they received neither, while the Syrian workers had the right to none. The 133 lira payout was worth $7 at the time, but about a year later it is worth about half of that because of inflation.

“We’re not able to look after our children or our homes,” said Ramazan. “We’re struggling a lot. That’s why we went to the streets.” 

The strike at Vera Ambalaj was the eleventh this year in cities such as Kahramanmaraş, Malatya, Gaziantep, and Adana. More than 5,000 workers were mobilised, all with similar demands, including the right to join a union and collective bargaining.

In the latest strike, almost 400 workers at the Özak factory in Urfa, which produces Levi’s, were fired after refusing to resign from the United Textile, Weaving and Leather Workers Union (BIRTEK-SEN). This was the first union in Türkiye to organise Syrians. Their demonstrations were outlawed, and the picketers were met with a violent police crackdown and arrests.*

Factory managers, on the other hand, complain that they have struggled to keep up with orders and cope with rising costs driven by runaway inflation, which was nearly 75% last year. 

In a report published in August by the Middle East Technical University, two in three suppliers who export to big apparel brands said production dropped after the earthquakes. Much of their large machinery was damaged; and one third of spinning machines were rendered unusable, causing production delays. 

There has been no sign of a return to normal production levels since and, with shipping infrastructure damaged and little flexibility from buyers, many suppliers have transferred the pressure onto their employees. The survey the Clean Clothes Campaign published in January said many workers referred to “forced” overtime, though some chose to stay late and regularly work weekends because they needed to earn more. 

Solidarity from Turkish workers helps counter prejudice

A majority of suppliers continued production through the aftershocks. While the factories were in better shape than many other buildings in the area, and some were used as shelters, a majority of workers said their factory was damaged, in some cases worse than their employers self-reported. One worker was killed when a factory collapsed in an aftershock. Still, very few of the factories were inspected, and those that were, said Mehmet Türkmen, head of BIRTEK-SEN, were warned beforehand so they could prepare.

“None of the suppliers respect the rights guaranteed by international conventions, and the brands know this,” Türkmen told The New Humanitarian. “As long as [the workers’] struggle does not turn into action and a public reaction, the brands don’t move a hair.”

Türkmen drew a comparison with the COVID-19 pandemic, when 80% of apparel factories were closed for three months but then resumed production. This sustained output, along with dropping labour costs, helped convince a growing number of European and American brands to “nearshore” their supply chains from China or Bangladesh to Türkiye. Still, consumer pressure eventually pushed some companies to extend their deadlines on orders.

Yet after the earthquakes in Türkiye and Syria, many global brands did not budge on deadlines. And 12 of 16 big apparel brands that either answered a questionnaire from the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre or follow-up questions from the Workers Rights Consortium – including Benetton, H&M, and the parent company of Tommy Hilfiger – said they did not pay orders placed before the earthquakes ahead of time. Only 5 of the 16 offered other forms of financial aid to the suppliers.

Requests for comment from factories on the strikes and worker conditions went unanswered by the time of publication. In the questionnaire, 6 of 11 brands said they had taken concrete steps to ensure vulnerable workers, like refugees, weren’t facing discrimination in terms of wage reduction or layoffs, but none said what these actual steps were.

“Syrians face discrimination in every part of life, but the place they experience the least of it is the factories where workers work together.”

The strikes have served to alert brands to the conditions in which they work. In late December, demonstrations at Levi’s stores in London, San Francisco, and Zurich helped push the company to meet with factory management. Even though their jobs might be on the line, many of the workers in the latest wave of strikes have been Syrian.

The strike at MDZ Yarn was led by Syrians, and the company acquiesced to all of their demands. Even though workers without work permits don’t have the right to join a union or to engage in collective bargaining, BIRTEK-SEN and the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey (DISK) count them as honorary members and are campaigning for them to have the right to form their own unions.

“Syrians face discrimination in every part of life, but the place they experience the least of it is the factories where workers work together,” said Türkmen. “Because they have the same problems. And they fight together against these problems. That’s how these prejudices are able to crack just a bit.”

One sign that they are cracking, said Karaca, the Gaziantep MP, is that when the Syrian workers at MDZ Yarn demanded the same rights as their Turkish colleagues, their Turkish co-workers supported them in their demands. 

Edited by Ali M. Latifi and Tom Brady.

(*The initial version of this articled incorrectly stated that all 470 workers were forced to resign from the union. In fact, almost 400 were fired by the factory. This corrected version was published on 13 February 2024.)

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