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Report Claims Syrian Refugees Make Apparel for M&S, Asos, Zara

A new report claims Syrian refugees are making apparel for major retailers, including Marks and Spencer, Asos, Zara and Mango—and some of them are children.

An undercover investigation by BBC’s Panorama in a program, called “Undercover: The Refugees Who Make Our Clothes,” reportedly found children at factories in Turkey making goods for M&S and Asos, while adult refugees were also found working illegally to make jeans for Zara and Mango.

According to BBC, Panorama found seven Syrians working in one of Marks and Spencer’s main factories in Turkey, earning hardly more than one pound per hour ($1.22), which is well below Turkish minimum wage.

The youngest of the workers discovered was 15 and spending upward of 12 hours a day pressing clothes bound for the U.K. One worker even told Panorama that the workers were ill-treated, saying, “If anything happens to a Syrian, they will throw him away like a piece of cloth,” BBC reported.

In a general statement Marks and Spencer sent to the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre in January addressing Syrian refugees in its supply chain, the retailer said repeatedly that there were no Syrian refugees in its supply chain. But earlier this month, Marks and Spencer issued an update saying an audit of one of its suppliers found a Syrian refugee working at the factory illegally.

“We had previously found no evidence of Syrian workers employed in factories that supply us, so we were very disappointed by these findings, which are extremely serious and unacceptable to M&S. We are working closely with this supplier to take remedial action and to ensure that they fully adhere to our GSP [Global Sourcing Principles],” the retailer said.

Marks and Spencer is now offering permanent legal employment to any Syrians working within its supply chain.

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Turkey has both been an increasingly popular manufacturing locale as European brands look to make closer to home in response to fast fashion demands and a haven for refugees because of its proximity to war-torn Syria.

In 2016, the United Nations said there are 13.5 million Syrians seeking humanitarian aid, 6 million of which are displaced within Syria and more than 4.8 million elsewhere. Turkey has taken in the most of those refugees, and the current count hovers around 2.7 million.

Syrian refugees are largely without legal permits to work, much in need of money and heading largely for the garment industry.

Panorama said it found an Asos sample in the office of a back-street workshop in Istanbul where Syrian children were found working.

BBC said Asos claimed its clothing was in fact being made in the factory but that it isn’t an approved factory. A later inspection turned up 11 Syrian adults and three children under 16 working there.

The e-tailer has since said the children will receive financial support to return to school and the adults will be paid a wage until they find legal work, this despite the fact that it’s not an approved Asos factory.

“We have implemented these remediation programmes despite the fact that this factory has nothing to do with Asos,” a spokesperson for the retailer told the BBC.

Panorama’s investigation also found Syrian refugees distressing jeans that would make their way to Mango and Zara. Workers were reportedly using hazardous chemicals to bleach the jeans and weren’t wearing protective gear.

Mango said the factory was an unapproved subcontractor and that follow-up inspections did not uncover any Syrian workers, according to the BBC, and Zara parent company Inditex said it found “significant” non-compliance at the factory after an inspection in June and that it has given the factory until December to make necessary improvements.

The problem for retailers today is that claiming they were unaware of the issue, or of any non-compliance, isn’t good enough anymore. Ownership and transparency are increasingly vital for brands looking to maintain a semblance of credibility and consumer loyalty.