An estimated 250,000 to 400,000 Syrians work in Turkeys garment industry

An estimated 250,000 to 400,000 Syrians work in Turkey's garment industry

The Foreign Trade Association (FTA) has partnered with member companies, including German mail order and e-commerce giant Otto Group and Hong Kong-listed fashion brand Esprit, on an initiative designed to improve working conditions for Syrian nationals in Turkish supply chains.

Working alongside Spanish department store retailer El Corte Inglés, and other members of both the FTA and its Business Social Compliance Initiative (BSCI), the collaboration will lead to the development of an action plan due to be released over the coming weeks as part of a longer term strategy.

The joint action was agreed at a multi-stakeholder forum in Hamburg earlier this week, where companies sourcing from Turkey, UN agencies, NGOs, academic bodies, associations and think tanks discussed joint solutions and agree on a road map to tackle the plight of Syrian workers.

Speaking at the event, FTA director general, Christian Ewert, said: "There is tremendous value in cooperation between business and other stakeholders to go beyond discussion to develop joint action. Despite all our best intentions business cannot tackle the challenges on their own."

According to current estimates, there are between 250,000 and 400,000 Syrians working in the garment industry in Turkey. However, just 13,000 work permits were issued to Syrians in all industries in 2016, the FTA said.

"There is still a large informal sector where workers might suffer precarious working conditions and this is a matter of outmost concern for businesses committed to the respect of workers' rights in their supply chains," Ewert said.

According to the FTA, the cost to businesses in Turkey of legally hiring a Syrian worker is well beyond the actual work permit itself, which is about EUR150 (US$158). On top of that, the employer is required to translate all documents and signs in the factory into a language the worker can read and to provide training in the worker's language.

While these are essentially reasonable measures, this effectively means that hiring even a few foreign workers incurs significant overhead costs, the FTA adds.

"Going beyond first tier suppliers poses the biggest challenges for businesses in Turkey," said Maren Barthel, corporate responsibility manager at the Otto Group. "The need for stronger engagement and collaboration with partners so that we can deep dive into the supply chains in Turkey to have a coordinated effort to identify any cases of worker exploitation that may not be immediately evident, is quite imperative."

The move comes as European fashion brands and retailers have been repeatedly urged to do more to help tackle the abuse of Syrian refugees in Turkish garment factories.

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