Reporter: Ahmed Haj Hamdo
Istanbul, Turkey, (al-Hayat) – After an accident leading to permanent disability for a Syrian refugee working in a Turkish textiles factory, the owner refused to pay for treatment or to compensate him.
Ibrahim Al-Ali, 33, required catheters in his left leg. His impoverished family in Syria painstakingly raised money to pay for his treatment at a private hospital only for doctors to inform him after the operation that the injured leg was permanently disabled. Ibrahim’s boss informed him he had no rights at the company and would not be compensated for the injury or for the cost of treatment, despite Turkish law guaranteeing such rights for workers with legal contracts.
Ibrahim threatened to go to the police but ultimately, like most Syrians in Turkey, he didn’t because of fear of prosecution or deportation.
Ibrahim is not the only Syrian whose labor rights have been violated in a country where more than 2.5 million Syrians have come as refugees since war broke out in their country in 2011. At least half a million of them are looking for jobs and most do not have official work permits.
Syrian middlemen in Turkey have become professionals at circumventing labor laws. According to the workers interviewed, they lure jobseekers with probationary employment at sewing shops and textile factories. The jobseekers, however, remain vulnerable to being fired without compensation or health coverage in the event of accidents at the workplace. This system of exploitation is now known in Turkey as onbeş, the Turkish word for “15 days”.
In mid-2013, Turkish labor laws were amended to identify foreign workers with rights to insurance, healthcare, paid leave and the minimum wage. Under the amendments, these rights only extended to foreign investors, private sector employees working in the investment industry, and those with required work permits. All other workers were left with nothing. All attempts to file complaints of abuse have proven to be ineffective.
Nashaat, 18, hurt his hand on a sewing machine. The injury required eight stitches and left his hand partially paralyzed. Nashaat said, “My boss forced me to work on the machine even though he knew it was faulty and had caused an injury three months prior as the needles kept breaking.”
Nashaat said everyone panicked when he was hurt. His employer sent someone to scout the street before sending him to a private clinic. An hour later he had sent 70 Turkish liras ($20) and a message saying, “I don’t want any trouble because of you.”
Nashaat said, “This meant I was fired.”
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 they are so hard to obtain. He said “the Syrian workers’ lack of any working documents has made them victim to companies looking to defraud them. At the same time, they are unable to secure any rights, leaving them with the sole option of filing complaints to the police.”
The plight of exploited Syrian workers might be resolved now that the Turkish government decided earlier this year to grant work permits. According to Qurunful, this will protect Syrians from deportation, a fate common for refugees in neighbouring countries.
Even though the Turkish government approved work permits, it also imposed entry visas on the Syrian working population. However, unlike neighboring countries also providing sanctuary, the Turkish permit and visa exempted the requirements of departure before being eligible to obtain residency papers.
This decision was not so much based on good faith as on a deal between Turkey and the European Union leaked to the public. It revealed that Turkey would prevent the influx of Syrian refugees into Europe in return for €3 billion. Safwan Bash Almazi, a spokesman for the Turkish Labour Ministry, said that more than half a million work permits would be granted as result of this.
The Labour Ministry admitted to the exploitation of Syrian workers. However, on Jan. 15, a solution was reached by granting work permits to foreigners with the aim of specifying a legal framework for their employment and the prevention of their exploitation by setting a minimum wage of 1300 Turkish liras ($420). Ghazwan Qurunful hopes that this will begin to resolve the lack of rights and compensation for workers.
Syrian workers interviewed three months after the deal was issued, however, say the Turkish government had failed to make good on its promise.
The ministry said, “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 reportedly received 318 complaints in 2015. Inspectors were assigned to investigate, but the results were inconclusive.
First, some complaints were without basis, and second, the ministry may require up to two months to investigate a complaint. During that time, the workers in question may have left the workplace where he/she may or may not have been 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 onbeş system. The birth of this system is to circumvent the law set by the Ministry of Labour. Patrols run by the Social Security Corporation, for example, ensure that all workers in any given enterprise have work and health insurance.
The Labour Ministry official says, “The inspectors of the ministry and the Social Security work to ensure that no laws are being broken. In the event of any breaches of the law, administrative sanctions are implemented.”
However, according to interviews with dozens of Syrian employees, employers get around patrols by terminating employment contracts before they arrive.
Binyamin Agha Dolaner, executive director at Securta, a government company specializing in labor insurance since 1987, said that the proportion of evasion of insurance for workers is approximately 42 percent. Rapid changes within the workforce, desperation for income and deliberate oversight by the Ministry of Labour has increased the numbers to more than 65 percent.
The Ministry of Labour said it does not send out patrols to these companies every 15 days, and failed to elaborate on how the patrol schedules are conducted.
Nobody has bounced between workshops as frequently as 26-year-old Ammar from Syria. He asked about a job opening at a sewing workshop in Gaziosmanpaşa, Istanbul on Dec. 3, 2015. When he called the number, a Syrian national who worked for the Turkish employer told him that any prospective employee “must work for two weeks without pay as a trial period, to verify the quality of your work. After which salary will be determined. If the work does not suit you, you can move to another workshop.”
Syrian Wael Baylouni was defrauded three times by the same broker working in collusion with Turkish employers. Wael met the broker at a café in Gaziantep, where he was promised a garment factory job.
Wael said, “I worked in a small workshop for 10 days after signing a contract written in Turkish that I did understand. Afterward, 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, which is how I knew I was being defrauded.”
Attempts to obtain said illegal contracts were unsuccessful as employers rarely provided them to their employees. Legally speaking, this means that Wael and all workers we surveyed never signed a contract.
Headhunters use various names on social media including Facebook and hundreds of public sites to seek out potential employees. According to e-marketing expert Mahmoud Habbak, a large proportion of these sites are designed to exploit Syrians. More than 10 pages are created each day. Most likely the same network owns them as the same phone numbers and addresses are used. Closed sites are even more dangerous as they invite users for specific purposes such as human and organ trafficking.
In areas with large numbers of Syrians such as Istanbul, Mersin, and Gaziantep, advertisements for jobs with attractive salaries are loosely offered without information on the nature of work or hours.
Reporters accompanied Duraid, a young Syrian who had been in Turkey since 2011, for five days to a workshop on the edge of Istanbul. He says, “Every 15 days, 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 refugees from Bengali, Sudanese etc.”
An inspection conducted on five workshops revealed that more than three-quarters of the employees had been reallocated to after 15 days of employment. Furthermore, nearly two-thirds were not required to produce permits or ID papers and more than three-fifths had moved between three to five sewing workshops.
To see the rest of the survey and questions visit the following this link.
Competing with Syrians
In Turkey, as in Jordan and Egypt, Syrian-made products and services are competitive in the local market due to lower prices as a result of cheap labor. Below are some examples of the fraudulent job advertisements these companies use:
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 pajamas 5 Turkish liras 22 Turkish liras 17-30 Turkish liras
Hamza, 48, prays every day to stay 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.”