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Buying Practices Exacerbate Exploitation in Turkey’s Garment Industry

Years of revelations about the use and abuse of Syrian refugees in the Turkish garment supply chain have done little to curb the “motors of mistreatment” resulting in sub-poverty wages, child labor and sexual offenses, a new report from the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) claims.

“Numerous reports have documented the poor working conditions Syrian refugees endure in Turkey, including discriminatory wages far below the legal minimum, child labor, sexual harassment and other abuse,” wrote the authors of “The Price You Pay: How Purchasing Practices Harm Turkey’s Garment Workers.” “Our analysis has demonstrated that while a small but growing group of brands are taking proactive steps to tackle exploitation, the majority are still failing to take steps to prevent abuse, particularly beyond their first-tier suppliers.”

Since 2011, Turkey has accepted more than 3.6 million Syrians fleeing civil strife, according to the UN Refugee Agency. The BHRRC estimates 650,000 have found employment in the country’s garment industry, though most are undocumented workers who toil, mostly invisibly and outside of union representation, in the subterranean tiers of the supply chain.

The preponderance of cheap labor—not to mention the demand for ever-faster fashion on the high street—has given Turkey’s garment industry an outsized boost, the organization added. Not only is Turkey the third-largest clothing supplier to the European Union, but it’s also expected to grow its exports by 10 percent in 2019.

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“The emergence of internet brands and increasing emphasis on speed to market—with turnaround times as fast as four weeks—to meet fast-changing consumer trends means Turkey will continue to retain strategic importance with both established and emerging European brands, given its close proximity to the European market,” said the study’s authors, who conducted three surveys of European high-street brands, performed field research in Turkey and held an industry roundtable as part of its research.

But even where brands take action, they often fail to tackle the root cause of exploitation: their own purchasing practices, which can hamper or even undermine any effort to alleviate working conditions in Turkish factories.

Suppliers BHRRC interviewed cited the “striking lack of long-term relationships” with brands as one of the drivers of precarious employment and excessive overtime. Businesses, they said, tend to contract orders for two to three months at a time, even if they’ve been clients for years.

“Suppliers cannot plan effectively, leaving workers vulnerable to short-term contracts and casual work, combined with long periods of overtime when large orders arrive,” the report noted. Faced with unrealistic deadlines—and the threat of financial penalties for delays—suppliers often turn to smaller, less regulated second- and third-tier subcontractors that operate under brands’ human-rights compliance radars.

Neither does it help that suppliers frequently feel pressured by brands to reduce their prices, which in turns depresses workers’ wages and makes decent working conditions next to impossible. One supplier admitted it accepted orders below cost; others said selling below cost is a common practice in the industry. In addition, most of the suppliers BHRRC spoke to said brands fail to factor 2019’s 26 percent national minimum wage hike into their pricing. Many confessed to putting the squeeze on their fabric suppliers, button/zipper suppliers or yarn suppliers to compensate.

Even companies with strong corporate-social-responsibility programs can have aggressive purchasing practices, suppliers said. “For big European brands, the purchasing departments have to get the confirmation of the sustainability departments,” one supplier said, describing a disconnect between the two teams. “But mostly, the buyers have the last say.”

If brands want to fully manifest the benefits of positive efforts introduced thus far, including the possibility of a living wage, these purchasing practices must change, the study’s authors wrote.

“This approach to their supply chains drives unrealistic cost cutting and heightened business risk, which is then passed down to the weakest link in the supply chain—the most vulnerable workers, who are disproportionately women, refugees and migrants,” they added. “A huge cultural shift is needed in order to truly transform practices.”