Ahmed Haj Hamdo
Istanbul, Turkey, March 2006,
(al-Hayat) – The owner of a Turkish textile factory refused to pay the costs of treatment and compensation for a Syrian refugee worker who was left with permanent disability in his left foot while working at a machine.
Ibrahim Al-Ali, 33, who worked at a factory at an industrial zone in Istanbul was transferred to a private hospital where doctors installed catheters in his leg right after the accident. His impoverished family in Syria painstakingly raised money to pay for his treatment, only for doctors to inform him he would no longer be able to use his injured leg for walking.
After his treatment Ibrahim received another shock when his Turkish boss told him he had no rights at the company and would not be compensated for the damage and the cost of treatment.
This was despite the fact that Turkish law guarantees such rights for workers with legal contracts. Ibrahim threatened to go to the police but ultimately, like most Syrians in Turkey do, he changed his mind, fearing prosecution and deportation.
Ibrahim is not the only Syrian to have his labour rights violated in a country where more than 2.5 million Syrians have come as refugees since the conflict started in their country in 2011, according to official figures. At least half a million of them are looking for jobs and most of them do not have official permits to work that would guarantee their labour rights.
Syrian middlemen in Turkey have become professionals at circumventing labour laws. According to interviewed workers, they lure jobseekers with probationary employment at sewing shops and textile factories. The jobseekers however remain vulnerable to be sacked without any compensation or health coverage in the event of accidents at the workplace, in a system of exploitation that is now known in Turkey as onbeş, the Turkish word for 15 [days].
In mid-2013 Turkish labour laws were amended to clarify which foreign workers would keep the right to insurance, healthcare, paid leave and the minimum wage. Under the new amendments these rights were extended only to foreign investors, private sector employees working in the investment sector or those granted a normal work permit. Any and all other workers were not necessarily guaranteed those same rights, leaving refugee workers with nothing to gain by filing complaints and providing evidence of abuse.
Nashaat, another refugee worker who is 18, did not fare better than Ibrahim. Nashaat was injured in his hand while working on a very old sewing machine., requiring eight stitches that unfortunately left his hand partially paralyzed.
Nashaat said: “My boss forced me to work on the machine exclusively even though he knew it had injured me in the hand three months ago as the needles keep breaking”.
An hour after working on the machine, the needle broke.
Nashaat said everyone panicked when the incident happened. His employer sent someone to scout the street before sending him off to a private clinic. An hour later he had sent 70 Turkish liras ($20) and a message that said: “I don’t want any trouble because of you”.
“This meant I was fired,” Nashaat said.
Ghazwan Qurunful, a Syrian lawyer specializing in the affairs of Syrians in Turkey, said the proportion of Syrians with work permits is very low because of the difficulty of obtaining them.
Qurunful added: “The Syrian workers’ lack of any working documents has made them prey to brokers and some companies looking to defraud them. At the same time, they are unable to secure their rights.”
However, the lawyer said that refugees can go to the police and file complaints.
The plight of exploited Syrian workers might be resolved now that the Turkish government decided earlier this year to grant work permits to Syrians on its territories. This measure according to Qurunful will protect Syrians from deportation, something that Syrian refugees in neighboring countries typically experience because they rarely obtain work permits.
Qurunful also expressed hope that the problem of low wages would be resolved after the Turkish government agreed on a minimum wage at 1300 Turkish liras ($420) on 15/1/2016.
But as Turkey approved work permits for Syrians on its territories, it also imposed entry visas on Syrians while exempting those in violation of residency papers from the requirements of departure, in effect leaving them in limbo.
These decisions came after a deal between Turkey and the European Union was leaked to the public, by which Turkey prevents the flow of Syrians into Europe through its territories in return for $3 billion euros in aid for hosting them.
Safwan Bash Almazi, a spokesman for the Turkish Labour Ministry told this reporter that the number of work permits that would be given to Syrians would be more than half a million.
The Labour Ministry admitted implicitly to the existence of exploitation, saying they had issued a decision granting work permits to foreigners “under the temporary protection of the Turkish government” with the aim of specifying a legal framework for their employment and the prevention of their illegal exploitation by setting a minimum wage of 1300 Turkish liras.
However, it has yet to be enforced according to Syrian workers we interviewed three months after the decision was issued. This means that that granting work permits cannot quickly put an end to the systematic exploitation of Syrian workers.
The ministry added: “Foreign workers who are exposed to exploitation can file complaints. If complaints are submitted correctly, they are followed up at the Inspection Department.” The ministry said there had been 318 complaints submitted in 2015 by foreign workers against their employers. It also said that inspectors were assigned to investigate them, but did not say whether there were complaints from Syrian workers specifically.
However, according to the ministry, this procedure faces two issues. First, some complaints are baseless. Second, the ministry needs time to check the complaint and collect documents, which could take up to two months in some cases. During this period, the worker in question may have left the workplace where he/she were exposed to rights violations, thus making it difficult to follow up on the complaint.
Meanwhile, Syrians continue to be hired in workshops based on the informal onbeş system. The main function of this informal system is to circumvent Turkish Labour Law, which forces employers to respect all rights should they be caught by the Ministry of Labour patrols that inspect industrial and commercial facilities on a bi-weekly basis.
Patrols run by the Social Security Corporation, for example, ensure that all workers in a given enterprise have work and health insurance.
But what happens sometimes is that employers have memorised the times of visits by these patrol and end contracts before they arrive, according to interviews conducted with dozens of Syrian workers.
“The inspectors of the ministry and the Social Security work to verify no laws are being broken by employers against foreign workers. In the event any breach of the law is documented, administrative sanctions are implemented,” the Labour Ministry official told this reporter.
Binyamin Agha Dolaner, Executive Director at Securta, a government company specialized in labour insurance since 1987, said that the proportion of evasion of insurance for workers in normal years was about 42%.
Rapid changes within the workforce, desperation for income and deliberate oversight by the Ministry of Labour had led this proportion to grow to more than 65%.
The Ministry of Labour said it does not send out patrols every 15 days. But it did not elaborate on how the patrols work, nor did they discuss their schedule.
Ammar N, 26, a Syrian national, has changed a record number of jobs at workshops.
In response to an ad placed by a Syrian national in Istanbul on a poster in Bayrampaşa district, one sewing shop was contacted in the area of Gaziosmanpaşa in Istanbul on December 3, 2015.
When he called the number, a Syrian national who worked for the Turkish employer answered stating that any prospective employee “must work for two weeks without pay at first as a trial period, to verify the quality of your work. After that, hours and the salary will be agreed. If the work does not suit you, you can move to another workshop to try it out.”
Syrian Wael Baylouni was defrauded three times by the same broker working in collusion with Turkish employers to exploit workers. Wael met the broker at a café in Gaziantep, where he was promised a job at clothes factory.
Wael said: “I worked in a small workshop for 10 days after signing a contract written in Turkish that I do not understand. Afterwards, he told me the employer was not happy with my performance, and took me to another shop, where I worked for 12 days before I was fired. Each time I asked about my wage, the employer would ask me to come back the following week because he did not have the money. So I knew I was being defrauded.”
We tried to get a copy of the contract but we couldn’t as all his employers did not give him a copy. Legally speaking, this means that Wael has not signed a contract. Other workers surveyed all confirmed that they had not been given copies of their contracts either.
The job seekers are hunted under various names on social media including Facebook and in hundreds of public and closed pages and groups.
According to e-marketing expert Mahmoud Habbak, a large proportion of these sites are designed to lure Syrians to exploit them and defraud them. By observing how these pages are set up, he added, one can notice that more than ten pages are created each day, probably owned by the same network as the same phone numbers and addresses used.
Closed groups are even more dangerous, he continued, as these pages invite users for specific purposes. Hence, the ability to lure victims increases, as happens with human and organ traffickers.
In areas with large numbers of Syrians in Istanbul, Mersin, and Gaziantep, posters written in weak Arabic advertise jobs at attractive salaries without adequate information on the nature of the work or the hours.
In the course of our investigation this reporter accompanied Duraid, a young Syrian who has been in Turkey since 2011, for five days to a workshop on the edges of Istanbul.
“Every 15 days on average, the boss asks me to hide for an hour, until the Ministry of Labour patrol finishes its inspection round.” He added: “It is not only the Syrians who suffer from this, but also other refugees like Bengalis, Sudanese, and others.”
Our inspection of five workshops and our survey of dozens of workers showed that more than three quarters of them had been asked to move to another workshops after 15 days or slightly more. It also showed that nearly two thirds were not asked to show permits or ID papers and more than three fifths had moved between three to five sewing workshops in Turkey.
To see the rest of the survey and questions visit the following link:
Competing with Syrians
In Turkey, as in Jordan and Egypt, Syrian-made products and services are competing in local markets because of their low prices and the cheaper wages in comparison local products and workers. Below are some examples of the difference in prices between Syrian and Turkish products:
Item Turkish item/rate
Fee for sewing pants Syrian worker pay Turkish worker pay Chamber of Commerce mandated pay
Sewing pants 30 Turkish liras 90 Turkish liras 75-100 liras
Sewing cotton pyjamas 5 Turkish liras 22 Turkish liras 17-30 Turkish liras
Hamza, 48, prays every day to God to keep him employed. “Even if I have to change a workshop every 15 days I’m happy.” However, Salma, 52 and her husband, 60, who work at the packaging and processing department are more fearful.
“We fear that what happened to us in Egypt would happen again. We complained against the employer so he sent us a patrol the next day and we were deported to Turkey.”
Note: Mohammad Baroudi and Turkish journalist Tugba Tekeret contributed to this investigation that was completed with support from Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) – www.arij.net