Syrian Refugee Children Working In Turkish Sweatshops Making UK Clothes, Undercover BBC Investigation Finds

Syrian refugee children are allegedly being put to work in Turkish sweatshops to make clothes for the United Kingdom’s Marks and Spencer and other UK outlets, according to the shocking results of a just-released underground investigation by the BBC. According to the report, Panorama, a BBC investigative journalism show similar to 60 Minutes in America, they found Syrian refugee children making M&S clothes and products for online retailer Asos, all of which is highly illegal and knowledge of which has been firmly denied by the outlets in question.

Marks and Spencer, in particular, conducted its own investigation which, they say, found no evidence of Syrian refugee labor anywhere in its Turkish supply chain.

But the BBC investigation allegedly found seven Syrian refugees working in Marks and Spencer’s main factory in Turkey, often not earning more than £1 an hour (roughly $1.22 USD), well below the minimum wage. According to them, they were employed by a middleman who approached them on the street and offered them cash.

One of them also claimed that the Syrian refugees were treated very poorly by the factory.

“If anything happens to a Syrian, they will throw him away like a piece of cloth.”

The youngest, a boy of 15, told Panorama that he was working over 12 hours a day, ironing clothes before they were shipped to Britain.

A significant amount of the United Kingdom's clothing is made in Turkey - and labor practices are often poor.
A significant amount of the United Kingdom’s clothing is made in Turkey — and labor practices are often poor. [Image by Ilker Akgungor/Getty Images]

The investigation wasn’t limited to one factory by any means. Panorama investigated many workshops and factories, and the results were damning. Reporter Darragh MacIntyre said that he spoke to dozens of Syrian refugee workers who felt that they were being exploited, but were helpless to change their circumstances. Most said that they were working days of 12 or more hours.

“They speak of pitiful wages and terrible working conditions. They know they are being exploited but they know they can do nothing about it.”

In one Istanbul workshop, carefully hidden in the back streets, they found several Syrian child workers and an Asos sample. Another found Syrian child refugees destressing jeans. They were spraying hazardous chemicals on the jeans to bleach them. Few even had a simple face mask, never mind the kind of protective gear that spraying dangerous chemicals requires.

Spraying chemical bleach typically requires a full hazmat suit, not jeans and a t-shirt.
Spraying chemical bleach typically requires a full hazmat suit, not jeans and a t-shirt. [Image by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]

When questioned, Mango said that the factory was working as a sub-contractor without their knowledge or consent, and their investigations found no Syrian refugees and “good conditions except for some personal safety measures.” Marks and Spencer claimed to have no knowledge, calling the allegations “extremely serious” and “unacceptable to M&S.” Asos acknowledged that its clothes were made in the back-alley factory, but said that it was not an approved factory. They at least, according to the Daily Mail, found 11 Syrian adults and three Syrian children under 16 working in the factory when they investigated.

But critics say that the retailers just aren’t doing enough to prevent abusive labor practices in their factories. While they may have conducted an investigation and even accepted culpability, none of it would have happened if investigative journalists from BBC’s Panorama hadn’t run their investigation first and the retailers certainly didn’t commission or pay for the journalists to find evidence of wrongdoing connected to them.

Danielle McMullan, from the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, said that the companies need to understand their responsibility and own it.

“It’s not enough to say we didn’t know about this, it’s not our fault. They have a responsibility to monitor and to understand where their clothes are being made and what conditions they are being made in.”

There is a silver lining. Since the investigation, Marks and Spencer have offered permanent, legal employment to any Syrians who may be working in their factories. Asos has promised to support the children until they can be returned to school and the adults until they can find legal work. Zara has given their factory a deadline of December to make improvements.

But in still another factory, this one allegedly making Next pajamas, Syrian refugees were found working alongside Turkish children as young as 10.

When confronted, Next responded that the pajamas were a sample, and their presence in the factory wasn’t proof that they were made there, and washed their hands.

How long does this have to go on before companies are held accountable?

[Featured Image by Chris McGrath/Getty Images]