The effects of the Syrian crisis demands action, so what role can the fashion industry play?

by Brandee M. Butler, Head of Gender Justice & Human Rights at C&A Foundation
Wednesday, 23 March 2016 11:46 GMT

Women sew while working in a garment factory in Idlib city, Syria July 26, 2015. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The garment industry has rallied to protect Syrian refugees from labor abuses, but it can do more, writes

As governments and communities grapple with how to protect and resettle millions of Syrian refugees, global fashion brands have an opportunity to be part of the solution.

Turkey as current epicenter of refugees working the garment industry

Neighbor to Syria, Turkey is the largest host with an estimated 2.5 million Syrian refugees. Turkey is also the third-largest textile exporter to the European Union. So it comes as no surprise that refugees, desperate to sustain the livelihood of their families, are finding illegal work in the Turkish garment industry.

The Business and Human Rights Resource Center estimates between 250,000 and 400,000 Syrian refugees are currently working illegally in Turkey. Global fashion retailers including H&M, Next, C&A and Primark openly reported identifying Syrian refugees working in their Turkish supply base and detailed their efforts to protect refugee workers.  

Syrian women and girls among the most vulnerable

As the Syrian war rages on and the humanitarian crisis deepens more refugees will turn up in manufacturing units throughout Turkey. Women and girls, who have borne the brunt of the crisis, are most likely to be among the large informal workforce. Poverty and precarious legal status make them extremely vulnerable to labor exploitation and abuse, including trafficking and conditions of forced labor. Their vulnerability persists in discriminatory attitudes toward women in the labor market. With few job opportunities and support, Syrian women and girls are increasingly targeted by unscrupulous recruiters and traffickers seeking to profit from their misfortune.

How fashion brands can help

This crisis is—or should be—of great concern to international fashion companies required by regulations like the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act and the UK Modern Slavery Bill to prevent trafficking and modern slavery in their supply chains.

The garment industry has rallied to protect Syrian refugees from labor abuses, but it can do more. To protect Syrian refugee workers, and particularly women and girls, fashion brands should:

  • Lobby the Turkish government to ease restrictions and expand access to refugee work permits, and to ensure equal treatment for Syrian and Turkish workers. These efforts are key to ensure fair wages and working conditions, and equal protection under Turkish law.
  • Improve auditing procedures to acknowledge the presence of Syrian refugees, issue clear refugee worker policies and guidance to suppliers and institute remediation procedures for rights violations.
  • Partner with civil society organizations, including women’s rights organizations, to help refugees identify viable economic opportunities to prevent child labor, gender-based violence and exploitation.
  • Collaborate with Turkish suppliers to offer in-factory information on the rights of refugees and resources for assistance. For example, women’s rights organization MADRE has produced Arabic-language comic strips to inform refugees of their rights and the importance of registration to establish refugee status and access assistance.
  • Explore tools to enable workers to organize and share critical information amongst themselves. The platform has been an effective way for migrant workers in the U.S.-Mexico migration corridor to avoid exploitation by sharing reviews of recruiters and employers online, or via voice mail or text message. Such a platform could also be a powerful tool to help Syrian workers organize and communicate their experiences with employers and recruiters in Turkey and neighboring countries.

Brandee M. Butler is the of Head of Gender Justice & Human Rights at the C&A Foundation. The Thomson Reuters Foundation is partnering with the C&A Foundation to raise awareness of trafficking and forced labour across South Asia.