Did a Syrian child refugee make that dress you are wearing?

LONDON• Big fashion brands are failing to protect Syrian refugees from "endemic" abuse in Turkish clothing factories supplying European retailers, a monitoring group said on Tuesday.

Child labour, pitiful pay and dangerous conditions are among the risks facing undocumented Syrian refugees working in Turkey's garment industry, according to the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre.

The London-based charity surveyed 38 major brands with Turkish factories in their supply chains on steps they are taking to protect vulnerable refugee workers from exploitation.

"A handful of leading brands, such as Next and New Look, demonstrate it is a moral imperative and commercially viable to treat refugees with respect," Mr Phil Bloomer, the watchdog's executive director, said in a statement. "The great majority of brands are doing too little. They should learn rapidly from these leaders to outlaw abuse of refugees in their supply chains and insist their suppliers provide decent work for all their workers."

Almost three million refugees - more than half aged under 18 - have fled to Turkey to escape war in Syria. Many work illegally in Turkey's garment industry, which supplies US$17 billion (S$23.6 billion) in clothing and shoes a year, mostly to Europe.

A Reuters investigation this year found evidence of Syrian refugee children in Turkey working in clothes factories in illegal conditions. Turkey bans children under 15 from working.

A BBC Panorama investigation broadcast on Monday found that Syrian refugee children had been working in factories making clothes for British high street retailer Marks & Spencer (M&S) and online store Asos.

An M&S spokesman told Reuters before the BBC report aired: "We had previously found no evidence of Syrian workers employed in factories that supply us, so we were very disappointed by these findings, which are extremely serious and are unacceptable to M&S." Asos declined to comment.

The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre said many brands justified inaction on labour exploitation by denying the existence of refugees of any age in their supply chains.

In its survey, drawn up with trade unions and rights advocates, only nine brands reported that they had found unregistered Syrian refugees on factory floors.

Those brands were Asos, C&A, H&M, KiK, LC Waikiki, Primark, New Look, Next and Otto Group.

Until this year, Syrians were not entitled to work permits, so many refugees worked informally.

Turkey started to issue permits in January, but the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre said "the vast majority of Syrian refugees continue to work without legal protections, making them vulnerable to abuse".

It said Asos, C&A, Esprit, Gap, Inditex, LC Waikiki, Mothercare, New Look, Otto Group, Primark, Tesco, Tchibo and White Stuff now expect suppliers to support unregistered refugees to get work permits. "This is a positive shift given many brands previously cited a zero tolerance policy towards unregistered refugees working in factories, leading to their dismissal - the worst outcome for their welfare," the charity said in a report.

It praised Next, New Look and Mothercare for having detailed plans for protecting refugees and for paying a minimum wage even when Syrians are employed without work permits.

The monitoring group criticised standard methods used to make sure supply chains are free from labour exploitation, in which brands announce in advance audits of so-called first-tier suppliers.

Rights groups say a lot of abuse occurs at the murkier ends of supply chains when suppliers sub-contract production from third-party factories that are much harder to keep track of.

The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre noted that Adidas, C&A, Debenhams, LC Waikiki, Puma, Inditex, Asos, H&M and Next audited sub-contractors below the first tier. But it said much more needed to be done.

The survey showed a minority of brands were taking collective action on exploitation in Turkey through the Ethical Trading Initiative, an alliance of trade unions, firms and charities promoting workers' rights, the group said. "Disappointingly, six brands did not respond to the (survey) questions - Gerry Weber, Lidl, Mexx, New Yorker, River Island and Sainsbury's," it added in its report.

Nobody was immediately available for comment at New Yorker, Mexx or Lidl. A River Island spokesman declined to comment.

A Sainsbury's spokesman told Thomson Reuters Foundation: "We expect our suppliers, both in the UK and abroad, to follow our Code of Conduct for Ethical Trade, which incorporates the Base Code of the Ethical Trading Initiative."

A spokesman for Gerry Weber said in an e-mail: "We have raised awareness with our suppliers for the issue and are furthermore on site with our own staff. Additionally, we realise audits with independent third parties."

Arcadia, Burberry, s.Oliver, SuperGroup, VF Corp and Walmart provided only short statements in response to the survey, the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre said.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 27, 2016, with the headline 'Did a Syrian child refugee make that dress you are wearing?'. Print Edition | Subscribe