In October 2016, a BBC Panorama programme looked at the issue of Syrian refugees working illegally in the Turkish garment industry in factories supplying M&S, Next, ASOS, Mango and Inditex.
We are acutely aware of the complexity surrounding Syrian refugees in Turkey and we have been engaged for over 18 months regarding the legal employment of Syrian refugees.
We have a local team on the ground in Turkey who visit all of our suppliers on a regular basis and interview workers. During 2015/16, they ran supplier workshops on the Syrian refugee crisis highlighting labour law and how to legally employ Syrian workers.
The key issue is that until January 2016 Syrian refugees had no ability to work in Turkey, as they were not allowed to apply for work permits. The Turkish Government changed the law in January but only to allow Syrians to work on a permanent basis with the factory having to apply for the work permit on their behalf. Unfortunately, this process can take many months and the requirements for a permanent work permit excludes many Syrians from receiving them. This leads to Syrians trying to obtain work informally and casually, being paid cash.
We had previously found no evidence of Syrian workers employed in factories that supply us, so we were very disappointed by the BBC’s findings, which are extremely serious and are unacceptable to M&S.
Within 24 hours of being supplied with the factory name, we conducted our own unannounced audit, which found one Syrian adult casual daily labourer paid in cash, without wage slips, and employed through an agent working at the factory. The worker was above the legal minimum working age and was being paid a wage equal to comparably skilled permanent workers, he did not have the required work permit.
We have worked closely with the factory to put in place an action plan who have been fully cooperative throughout the process, this included offering the Syrian refugee permanent legal employment. This was declined and they have subsequently left the factory.
We have continued to monitor the factory closely to ensure that they adhere to our Global Sourcing Principles
and carried out future visits and audits in all factories on an unannounced basis.
It has always been our policy not to “Cut & Run” following an incident such as this, but to work with the factory to ensure our standards are upheld and these issues do not happen again in the future. As the owners of the factory cooperated fully and were unaware that the Syrian worker had been employed on a daily basis by the factory, we did not exit this factory merely as a result of the Panorama programme and we have continued to monitor it closely to ensure it amends its practices so it does not occur again.
We have also reviewed our management systems to identify lessons learned and improvement opportunities. As a result, we developed a relationship with a non-profit foundation called United Work
which provides support for refugees regarding their fundamental needs (educational advice, recruitment, working permits and on-the-job-training), this is free and sponsored by the Dutch Government. We require our suppliers to let us know when they would like to recruit a refugee and we then introduce the factory and United Work
to each other. Since the beginning of 2018, we have successfully helped 17 Syrian refugees into legal employment in our supply chain in Turkey.
We have also continued to carry out training with all our suppliers to highlight the legal process to employ Syrians with work permits. All our formal compliance audits continue to check work permits routinely.
We have also recently partnered with MUDEM, a Refugee Support Centre, and signed a Cooperation Protocol on Remediation of Working Conditions of Refugees. This provides a confidential mechanism for Syrian (and other refugees) to raise complaints or issues in our factories anonymously. Should this happen MUDEM will liaise with us to resolve and remedy any issues. As of May 2019, we have had no issues raised with us via MUDEM.
In addition, we continue to be members of the in-country Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) Turkey Working Group, working collaboratively with other Brands on a best practice and due diligence approaches to protecting Syrian refugees seeking work in the garment industry but given the scale of the plight of Syrian refugees, and the sheer scale of the issue of informal workers in all industries, not limited to the garment industry, we also recommended a convening of all brands sourcing from Turkey, to establish a multi-industry wide collective action plan and next steps.
In October 2018, at our second human rights and modern slavery conference in Turkey we took the opportunity to publicise our Modern Slavery Toolkit for Suppliers and Partners. We translated this document into Turkish and sent it to all our suppliers. The conference was attended by 172 attendees including Government officials, Turkish employer’s association, other brands and Syrian employment agencies. A highlights video of the conference can be viewed here.
With teams from other brands, ETI representatives, the Turkish Government and Employer Associations, we believe we have a great opportunity to help improve the situation for employment of the Syrian Refugees.