Would you feel comfortable wearing clothes you know have been made by a child labourer? Most people’s answer would be ‘of course not!’. If you have ever bought a fast fashion item, there are high chances that you have worn clothes made by a child.
For the last twenty years Turkey has played a significant role in the world textile market. Until last year (2016) the country had a good reputation as the third largest textiles exporter to Europe, after China and Bangladesh. Then, the BBC reported on a problem with child labour in Turkey and related it to the country accepting more refugee families from Syria than any other country in the world.
Turkey is the 7th largest producer of cotton in the world, producing 738,000 tons in 2015/16. It’s also the 3rd largest producer of mohair and produces its own wool. In addition, Turkey is one of the largest producers of man-made raw material – mainly polyester blends. In 2015 the country exported $5 billion of fabric alone (and $15 billion worth of clothing in 2013).
The Turkish textiles industry is vertically integrated — meaning they process fabric from the ground up, including preparing the fibre, spinning, weaving, dyeing, printing, finishing the fabric, and sewing clothing. Most of its 56,000 producers are small scale micro-entrepreneurs. Although many factories use state of the art machinery, many more are labour intensive, relying on nearly two million people to do the work by hand.
Turkey has laws against child labor, but it often happens that laws established on a macro level are not communicated to (or obeyed by) those on the micro level. Small textiles owners in Turkey see an influx of refugee families from Syria who need to survive. Mothers come to them for work and bring their children. Often the owner hires the mother as well as the children. Historically, the pattern has existed since the early 1500s, when poor Turkish families needed work.
In 2016, Turkey had as many as half a million of its own children working in various sectors, most attending school and working afterward. But refugee families can’t always afford that luxury in a foreign country, and nobody knows how many Syrian refugee kids are working full time.
H&M retail giant was interviewed on the subject as they produce garments in roughly 210 units in Turkey. They claimed only one of their 210 units in Turkey was using child labor.
Turkish textiles representatives say the industry is doing well and shouldn’t be defamed for the one area that isn’t perfect yet. The 2010 collapse of the manufacturing facility in Bangladesh, with huge numbers of fatalities, was a wakeup call to textiles manufacturers worldwide, including Turkey.
In 2011 the Turkish government called on the International Labour Organization (ILO) to help restructure its textiles industry, to make the industry more sustainable and labour friendly.
Since then, the Turkish Textiles Department has been working towards being reorganised and retrained. The government has a sustainability strategy, increased awareness of what it takes to develop a healthy industry, a research centre to help figure out how to compete, and an online portal to enable factories to connect with suppliers and buyers.
Meanwhile, some leading brands (like Nike, Adidas, Puma) have been working with their Turkish suppliers to improve labour conditions and salaries.
It will take time for governmental changes to affect grassroots entrepreneurs, but hopefully labor issues will be considered and eventually eradicate these severe malpractices.