Refugee & migrant garment workers: One size does not fit all

The refugee and humanitarian crisis is having huge and far reaching impacts across the Middle East and Europe, but our recent research suggests many garment brands are failing to grasp the human rights risks that this mass movement of people brings to their supply chain….

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April 6, 2016
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The refugee and humanitarian crisis is having huge and far reaching impacts across the Middle East and Europe, but our recent research suggests many garment brands are failing to grasp the human rights risks that this mass movement of people brings to their supply chain. Turkey which shares a boarder with Syria is struggling to cope with an influx of over 2.2 million Syrian refugees fleeing the horrors of the civil war.

There are estimated to be anywhere between 240,000 to 400,000 refugees working illegally in Turkey, many of whom are children. Lack of legal status means these workers, are particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Following reports of pitiful wages, discrimination and sexual abuse in Turkish garment factories we reached out to 28 leading garment brands to ask them how they were approaching managing this risk.

The responses to our survey suggested that while brands had processes to manage supply chain risks including worker exploitation and discrimination, only a few brands appear to have engaged with the extent and the complexity of these issues in their Turkish supply base; even fewer report taking targeted action to protect these vulnerable, largely women workers.  Only three brands had drawn up a specific policy to tackle this risk with suppliers.  The best example of this being UK retailer NEXT’s “Syrian Refugee Action Plan” which set out specific dos and don’ts for supplier factories which employ Syrian workers and made it clear that these workers should not be automatically dismissed. NEXT was also partnering with two specialist refugee NGOs to deliver remedy where abuse had occurred.

We detected serious problems in the way brands were auditing and monitoring suppliers; only 4 brands reported detecting Syrian refugees during supplier audits. However, brands were typically conducting announced or semi announced audits (within a pre-arranged time frame), and were mostly only auditing a decent percentage of their first tier suppliers. This isn’t sufficient to detect refugees and exploitation deeper in the supply chain where the most serious compliance and human rights issues typically lurk.

Companies need to ensure that their business processes are agile enough to react to the unique challenges the migrant and refugee crisis poses.  Our report calls on brands to take a targeted approach.  Business as usual will not effectively manage the supply chain risks of this unprecedented humanitarian crisis.  Brands need to adopt a specific action plan in collaboration with specialist NGOs that provide services directly to refugees to protect this particularly vulnerable group of workers.  We are also urging brands to increase the scrutiny of their supply chain beyond the first tier and move quickly to 100% unannounced audits.  These measures are needed firstly for brands to properly understand the risks that exist deep in their supply chains and secondly to mitigate and remedy abuse.

One positive that emerged was that many brands cited engagement with the Turkish Government on the issue of work permits for refugees, either directly or through the ETI and FLA.   This pressure was instrumental in the Government’s decision in January 2016 that it would would issue work permits to Syrian refugees. Although this will not solve the problem, it will help refugees gain legal protections that can guard against exploitation.  We hope that this development will allow brands to be more transparent about the supply chain challenges they face and work collaboratively to find a solution.