Syrian child refugees have been found working in Turkish factories supplying British clothing chains, according to an investigation by BBC programme Panorama.
Panorama journalists said they found children in factories that were part of the supply chains of Marks and Spencer (M&S) and online retailer Asos. The investigation found seven Syrians in one factory that supplies M&S, including one 15-year-old, worked 12 hours a day ironing products before shipping.
It said the Syrians were employed and paid through a middleman and earned as little as £1 an hour, and that one of the seven told Panorama he was poorly treated.
Panorama also reported finding Asos samples in another factory employing Syrian children. The BBC said Asos has since admitted to finding three Syrian children and 11 Syrian adults working in an “unapproved factory” during an inspection.
Neither M&S nor Asos have responded to requests for comment from SM. Yet M&S told the BBC that the investigation’s findings were “extremely serious” and “unacceptable” and has offered permanent legal employment to any Syrians employed in the factory. “Ethical trading is fundamental to M&S. We do not tolerate breaches of these principles and we will do all we can to ensure that this does not happen again,” it told Panorama.
M&S is one of only 27 FTSE100 firms to have published its modern slavery statement, and was ranked as one of the best for its risk assessment and due diligence.
Asos told the BBC it would give financial aid to help any child refugees found in the factory return to school, and would pay adult refugees a wage until they can find work legally. The company said it was taking steps to resolve the issue “despite the fact that this factory has nothing to do with Asos”.
Refugees in Turkey are particularly vulnerable to exploitation because most do not have any legitimate route to employment, as the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons 2016 report has highlighted.
The State Department estimates that 1m Syrian refugees entered Turkey between April 2015 and March 2016, alongside hundreds of thousands of refuges from other nationalities, and said child refugees often ended up working to support their families.
“An increasing number of Syrian refugee children work in restaurants, textile factories, markets, mechanic or blacksmith shops, and agriculture,” it said.
The Turkish government and police have taken steps to stop child refugees being exploited. In May 2016, police in south eastern Turkey closed down a gang that allegedly exploited 282 child refugees as waste paper collectors. Police acted after noticing that many more children were collecting paper with carts.
Yet much more needs to be done. Earlier this year the Foreign Trade Association estimated only 7,000 Syrians have work permits in Turkey, and that 400,000 are working illegally across the agricultural, apparel and textiles industries.
The exploitation of Syrian child refugees is just one aspect of a systemic problem in Turkish society. Education union Egitiem-Sem estimates that there are more than 1m child workers in Turkey, mostly in the agriculture and service sectors.
Between 2013 and 2016, 194 children have died at work or on their way to work, estimates the Turkish Statistical Institute. Muslum Baran of the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions told the Hurriyet newspaper that the Syrian crisis had made it harder for institutions to prevent child labour.
David Noble, group CEO, CIPS, said because of the transparency provisions brought in by the Modern Slavery Act 2015, UK businesses can no longer ignore slavery they can’t see, and risk reputational damage if they do so.
A recent CIPS survey showed just one in five businesses who fall under the act are aware of the their obligations, he said, and only a third have mapped their supply chains to understand their risks.
“To truly eliminate this evil from UK procurement, businesses need to step up their game. They should start mapping their supply chains properly and put measures in place to monitor malpractice. Ultimately, the legal duty in the Act must not override the moral obligation of us all to make sure our supply chains are slavery-free,” he said.
Further reading: Checklist: Carrying out a successful factory audit
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