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Zara Factory Workers Give Voice to Turkey’s Supply Chain Problems

Turkey’s importance as a manufacturing hub, specially for European fashion firms, is growing, but the sector is also a focus of some controversy.

Workers from Bravo Tekstil, an apparel factory in Istanbul that abruptly closed a year ago have been leaving customers notes at Zara stores in the Turkish city about their plight.

“I made this item you are going to buy, but I didn’t get paid for it,” the notes read, according to multiple news sources.

Workers have been campaigning to get three months of back wages and severance they say they are owed because the factory’s owner apparently disappeared with the money Zara’s parent, Inditex, had paid for the merchandise they manufactured.

There is a petition for the cause.

Inditex has set up a hardship fund to raise money “for the workers affected by the fraudulent disappearance of the Bravo factory’s owner.” It began to put together the fund shortly after the factory owner disappeared.

“Inditex has met all of its contractual obligations to Bravo Textil and is currently working on a proposal with the local IndustriALL affiliate…to establish a hardship fund for the workers affected by the fraudulent disappearance of the Bravo factory’s owner,” Inditex said in a statement published by CNBC and other news outlets. “We are committed to finding a swift solution for all of those impacted.”

[Read more about Inditex: Inditex Powers Ahead With Global Expansion, as Sales and Earnings Rise]

Meanwhile, Turkey’s textile and apparel exports are approaching $30 billion annually, with the government hoping this will grow to exceed $50 billion by 2023, according to Yusuf Gecü, chairman of Merter Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association, speaking at a recent industry event in Istanbul.

According to Turkey’s Daily Sabah, Gecü highlighted the contribution made by Merter district in Istanbul known for its ready-to-wear, which accounts for about 25 percent of all industry exports.

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The district exports textile and apparel products to 215 countries around the world, with most medium and large manufacturers operating a store or showroom in Merter. At present, the region has roughly 10,000 stores, employing close to 100,000 people.

But Turkey’s textile and apparel sector is not without some controversy.

According to a new report by Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, the industry should step up efforts to prevent the exploitation of Syrian refugees in Turkish supply chains.

In a survey of 37 European companies, New Look, Next, Asos, Inditex, Otto and SuperGroup ranked as the top brands for taking strong action against such exploitation.

The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre survey cited Aldi, Arcadia, Asda and LC Waikiki as only providing minimal information with little evidence of action to stop exploitation of refugees, while KiK, Mexx, New Yorker, River Island, s.Oliver and VF Corp. failed to respond to the survey.

About 650,000 refugees are thought to be working in Turkey, and the garment industry is a key source of this employment. But most refugees don’t have work permits, leading them to engage in informal work, which brings a greater risk of exploitation. The BHRRC said investigations have repeatedly revealed poor wages, with women being paid half the minimum wage and consistently less than men, and child labor used by subcontractors of European fashion brands.

“The best practice highlighted in this report needs to become the minimum standard across Europe,” Phil Bloomer, executive director of the BHRRC, said. “If they could work on decent terms in the garment industry, refugees in Turkey and beyond would have a chance at a better life. We welcome the advances by leading companies, but Europe’s fashion brands need to ensure the price paid for the clothes on the high street ensures a living wage for vulnerable refugees and their fellow Turkish workers.”

The companies at the top of the BHRRC ranking are better at identifying risks of abuse in their long and complex supply chains, with targeted plans to protect refugee workers, and mechanisms to deal with grievances and complaints.

The survey noted that 15 brands now have a specific policy prohibiting discrimination and exploitation of Syrian refugees, up from nine in 2016. Brands have also strengthened and increased their audits of suppliers in Turkey.

But the BHRRC said more than 50 percent of the companies assessed need to improve in areas such as looking at the prices they pay for products, the demands they put on suppliers, and the risk of undeclared subcontracting.