Jennifer Hattam – “Our lives are very worthless”: Turkey’s garment and textile workers a year after earthquakes

Massive earthquakes that devastated a vast swath of south-eastern Turkey just over a year ago also left workers in the region’s large textile and garment industry vulnerable to widespread violations of their rights, according to a new report by the Clean Clothes Campaign.

Jennifer Hattam is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul, Turkey

Cross-posted from Equal Times

Photo: Voice of America

“I learned whose life is valuable and whose is worthless during the earthquake. The lives of workers like us are very worthless,” one sector employee told researchers for the January 2024 report, The Impact of the Earthquake on Textile and Garment Workers, which is published by Clean Clothes Campaign Turkey and based on 130 anonymised interviews with textile and garment workers.

The findings also point to the failure of well-known international brands to support their global supply chains during disaster and crisis situations, according to report author Derya Göçer, a professor in the Graduate School of Social Sciences at Middle East Technical University in Ankara.

“Disasters like this magnify the already inherent bad practices and inequalities in this sector, where the strict production deadlines in fast fashion mean even the [local] employers are under pressure because they may lose the supply contract,” says Göçer.

“In the post-disaster context, this means workers coming back to buildings that are not properly inspected, and working through aftershocks or mental health crises.”

The 6 February 2023 earthquakes killed more than 53,000 people in 11 Turkish provinces and displaced over three million. In neighbouring Syria, recent estimates put the number killed between 5,000 and 8,500 people while tens of thousands were displaced. More than half of the textile and garment workers Göçer’s team surveyed said their homes were amongst those that had been damaged.

Though the disaster left them struggling to find shelter for their families and meet their basic needs, more than 50 per cent of surveyed workers said they only took between two and four weeks of leave. While on leave, three-fourths of workers told the researchers that they received less than their full wages, and more than a third said they received no wages at all, creating intense financial pressure to return to work quickly.

“After the earthquake, I placed my family in a safe place and returned to Malatya [province],” one worker told the researchers. “I stayed on the company grounds for one month…there was no place where I could take a comfortable shower and sleep.”

A year after the disaster, many workers remain separated from their families, according to Göçer. “The workers who stayed [in the earthquake region] despite all their mental and physical health problems cannot find accommodation; they have had to send their families to cities and villages around Anatolia,” she says. “From what we can see there is nothing from the brands to support even the basic need of housing.”

One of the world’s worst countries for workers’ rights

Turkey is one of the world’s top countries for garment and textile production, with US$16.2 billion in exports in 2021, according to a Turkish Ministry of Trade report cited in the Clean Clothes Campaign report, mostly to countries in the European Union and the United States. Suppliers in the earthquake-hit provinces played a significant role in the sector, producing goods for prominent global buyers including Benetton, H&M, Primark and Zara as well as large domestic brands such as LC Waikiki.

The provinces affected by the earthquake accounted for 15 per cent of Turkey’s garment and textile industry, with an estimated 350,000 workers at approximately 2,900 companies prior to the disaster.

In the year since the earthquake, employment in the ready-made clothing sector dropped by 40 per cent and production by 50 per cent, according to a press statement sent to Equal Times by the Turkish Clothing Manufacturers Association (TGSD) issued for the anniversary of the disaster. TGSD President Ramazan Kaya said in the statement that recovery has been hampered by a “loss of qualified employment” in the region and difficulties accessing finance and loans.

Shortly after the disaster, the Turkish government instituted a temporary ban on layoffs across the stricken region. “But what we saw is that if suppliers don’t fear this enough, if the fines are not high enough to deter it, they find other ways to fire workers,” says Göçer.

Workers told her research team that they face “systematic and routine verbal harassment” by their employers. In the post-earthquake period, this practice, known as “mobbing,” often took the form of pressure to work overtime, upon threat of termination if they did not comply.

Turkey has consistently ranked amongst the world’s ten worst countries for workers’ rights in the International Trade Union Confederation’s Global Rights Index, with the repression of strikes and systematic union busting listed amongst the violations.

With both freedom of association and the right to strike restricted in Turkey, 89 per cent of workers in the earthquake region’s textile and garment industry – even those who are unionised – do not have a collective bargaining agreement, according to the Clean Clothes Campaign report. In this climate, the layoff ban may have actually worsened the situation for some workers, as they would not receive severance or other benefits if they are forced out rather than officially laid off.

“A year after the earthquakes, we can see that employment in the region has not yet recovered,” says Haluk Deniz Medet, a spokesperson for the Turkish textile workers union DİSK Tekstil. “There is a serious contraction in exports and European brands, our most important customers, are shifting their orders to Asian countries.”

Supply chain resilience at the expense of workers’ rights

This kind of opportunism is all too common in the global garment and textile industry, according to Mayisha Begum, a researcher with the London-based Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC). “What we have seen during the Covid-19 pandemic and other crises is that brands can change their purchasing practices very quickly when it benefits them,” says Begum.

Many garment-producing regions around the globe are highly susceptible to the effects of the climate emergency, as well as to political and economic crises, adds Natalie Swan, labour rights programme manager at BHRRC.

“As these flashpoints become increasingly the norm, [global] companies should be using their agility to deal with these crises in a way that improves supply chain resiliency and workers’ ability to make a living safely,” she says. “When there is a dent to profits, the go-to should not be that suppliers, and then workers, are the ones that get squeezed.”

Only 4 per cent of textile and garment suppliers in south-eastern Turkey were able to resume production as usual after the earthquakes, according to a separate survey of regional suppliers that Göçer and a colleague carried out in June 2023. Yet only a handful said the brands they supply offered any support in the aftermath of the disaster; 69 per cent of respondents said they received no contact at all from buyers or brands.

That same month, the BHRRC reached out to 11 international apparel companies doing business in the region to ask about their purchasing practices following the disaster. Only six brands said they were taking steps to protect workers at supplier factories and only one said it was providing financial assistance to the families of workers who had been killed in the earthquakes. None provided details about these actions.

And aid donations such as those pledged by H&M Group and Inditex (the parent company of Zara) to Save the Children, the Turkish Red Crescent Society and Turkey’s disaster management agency AFAD “don’t really go to the workers,” says Göçer.

“These companies are looking for PR campaigns rather than actions to help their own supply chains,” she adds. “There is a vast difference between what the brands publicly declare they are doing versus what is happening on the ground.”

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