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Turkish Garment Workers Make 1/4 of Living Wage

Garment workers in Turkey who receive the legal minimum pay earn just one-quarter of what would constitute a living wage, a new investigation shows.

Workers who make clothes for a broad swath of Western brands, including Adidas, Gap, H&M, Levi Strauss and Zara owner Inditex, are barely able to sustain themselves, according to field research conducted by Clean Clothes Campaign Turkey, including interviews with 138 workers in Istanbul and Izmir in October.

A living wage is defined as the wage a worker must receive within the bounds of a legal workday to sufficiently lead a decent life. It should cover basic food needs (3,000 calories per day for an adult), clothing, health, education, rent, transportation and savings for a family. The International Labour Organization decrees a living wage a basic human right.

While the situation has been ongoing since Turkey became a major fashion exporter in the 1980s, the organization said, conditions have worsened in recent years. Turkey was and still is in the throes on an economic crisis. The rising cost of food, fuel, medicine and other essentials has driven millions of the country’s citizens to the brink of poverty.

“Due to hyperinflation, garment workers in Turkey are confronted with the insoluble problem of sustaining their families,” said Bego Demir, coordinator at Clean Clothes Campaign Turkey. “The state gives incentives to employers, but it doesn’t control the implementation of labor law in the sector.”

Deriteks Sendikası, a local union, estimates that 1.26 million people are employed in Turkey’s textile industry. Clean Clothes Turkey says, however, that the number is likely three times larger because of a booming informal sector underpinned by a largely migrant workforce. In 2019, garment and footwear exports made up 10.6 percent of Turkey’s exports. The nation’s garment industry is the world’s seventh-largest garment exporter, but the European Union’s third after China and Bangladesh.

Increases in the statutory minimum wage have not kept pace with the lira’s weakening purchasing power, the report said. Even then, the Turkish government has not fulfilled the “minimum practices to render the working conditions compatible with the legislation.” Only one in three garment workers receives the legal minimum wage, overtime included, researchers found. They added that the current minimum wage is 4,253 lira ($246) but a basic living wage would be at least 13,000 lira ($750).

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Trade unions have high barriers to recognition, even if they’re not being actively blocked by factory owners, Clean Clothes Campaign Turkey said. Legal protections for workers, particularly those involving the right to freedom of association, or either “half-hearted” or absent. The result is that more than half of all workers who stitch clothes in Turkey don’t have a labor contract or benefit from social security. Exploitation, especially of immigrants, refugees, women and children, is rampant, with workers often toiling for excessive hours to cover their expenses.

Clean Clothes Campaign Turkey said it’s clear that there is no sustainable plan to address informal employment or improve working conditions in the nation’s textile industry. Despite laws that superficially support workers’ right to unionize, workplaces that flout these rules have always been tolerated, the organization said. Investigators found widespread evidence of double bookkeeping, with factories maintaining one legally compliant ledger for show and another one that contains the “real” wages, working hours and overtime pay.

Until an effective EU law enhances the protection of workers’ rights in Turkey, brands cannot ignore these blind spots just because they want to continue producing cheaply, Clean Clothes Campaign Turkey said.

“This research shows that the Turkish government must meet its monitoring obligations to make sure the law is fulfilled,” Demir said. “All brands that have their supply chain in Turkey also must make sure all the workers behind their products reach all their rights.”