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Five Die, Six Injured in Istanbul Textiles Factory Fire

Three people have been arrested following a textiles factory fire that killed at least five workers and injured six in the Güngören district of Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, local media reported last week.

Four of the workers who died in the Feb. 11 fire, which broke out in an unnamed four-story facility, were Syrian immigrants, according to the Hürriyet Daily News. A statement from the Istanbul governor’s office said that one eyewitness spotted some of the workers locking themselves in a restroom to escape the flames. It was later determined that the four “foreign nationals” died from smoke inhalation in the same location, the office said, though it didn’t specify the workers’ nationalities.

The Istanbul Textile and Apparel Exporters Association (IHKIB) said that the workers who died were from the construction industry, but it did not clarify what they were doing in the factory.

“The hiring of Syrians is not common in the Turkish garment industry, but of course, there are some Syrian workers in our industry too. All workers are registered in accordance with the legislation,” a representative told Sourcing Journal. “Please note that IHKIB Members are working with global garment brands, and all production and distribution activities of our members are inspected by independent audit firms.”

But labor campaigners say that the Turkish garment industry has long struggled with the exploitation of Syrian refugees who frequently experience discriminatory wages far below the legal minimum, child labor, sexual harassment and other abuse. Since 2011, when civil strife sent the first Syrians fleeing for safety, 3.6 million of them have settled in Turkey, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.

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“These horrific deaths are yet another indictment of an industry that has utterly failed to ensure basic factory safety because it treats the most vulnerable workers as disposable and bereft of rights,” Thulsi Narayanasamy, head of labor rights at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, a human-rights think tank, told Sourcing Journal. “The garment industry is structured to chase the cheapest labor, which usually means the most vulnerable, like Syrian refugees in Turkey, who are then exploited and forced to work in horrifyingly dangerous conditions without rights or protection.”

While 165 predominantly European brands have signed the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry, previously the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, as of Feb. 14, “little” is being done to “systematically address” the problem of garment worker safety on a global level, Narayanasamy said.

“Accountability should not stop with factory owners,” she added. “They are part of a broader system that has for too long normalized the dehumanization of workers in pursuit of profit, and brands sourcing from this textile factory should be held to account.”

Narayanasamy said that multinational brands have “markedly increased” production in Turkey since the pandemic began. The IHKIB told Reuters in December that it expected exports to surpass $20 billion in 2021, coupled with another 15 percent boost in 2022, because European brands are looking to save on soaring freight and logistics costs in Asia.

“With the exploitation of Syrian refugees in factories rife, we have to ask if they are meeting their basic human rights obligations or conducting any due diligence,” she said. “It’s not too much to expect that all workers can go to work without risking injury or death.”