HomeFashionFactories, Brands ‘Disregarded’ Worker Rights After Turkey Earthquakes

Factories, Brands ‘Disregarded’ Worker Rights After Turkey Earthquakes

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Garment factories and fashion brands alike “disregarded” worker rights in the wake of a pair of powerful earthquakes that pummeled southern and central Turkey in February, leaving more than 50,000 people dead and 100,000 injured, a new report by the Turkish arm of the Clean Clothes Campaign said Thursday.

The survey of 130 workers in the worst-hit cities of Adiyaman, Gaziantep, Kahramanmaraş and Malatya, which the Middle Eastern Technical University conducted in August and September, expanded upon a study of garment and textile producers that the Ankara-based institution published in August. That survey revealed that 69 percent of more than 200 suppliers received only radio silence from their buyers following the disaster. Some 35 percent said that brands failed to stretch production deadlines afterward, while 48 percent experienced a reduction in order volumes.

The worker questionnaire presented similarly bleak results. The twin temblors damaged the homes of more than 52 percent of respondents, forcing many to seek refuge with friends and relatives, scramble for rented rooms or tussle for one of the limited number of available containers and tents. Those who were unsuccessful remained in their unsafe properties, lived in their cars or slept out in the open.

Only one worker said they got housing support from their workplace, pushing against a narrative by some manufacturers that their facilities became a sanctuary for the displaced. “We set up a tent in front of the house for two days. Then we stayed in the factory,” this person said. “They provided accommodation for families. Some are still staying in the containers the factory provided. Whoever wants stays.”

The lack of latitude by buyers regarding deadlines, as suggested by the previous survey, had a knock-on effect, the report said, leading employers to “call workers back to the factory almost forcibly and much earlier than required by public conscience or workers’ rights during the post-earthquake period.” Even workers who were concerned about aftershocks returned because they didn’t have savings or assistance to lean on during this time. “I had to take my children out of the city, but I reluctantly returned for bread money,” one worker said. “My supervisors called me, and they said if I don’t come, they won’t deposit the earthquake aid,” said another.

Of the 50 percent of workers who took two to four weeks of leave after the earthquakes hit, and the quarter who took more than two months, less than 25 percent received their full wages. Most, amounting to 35 percent, did not receive anything at all. Another 32 percent could only rely on state allowance and just over 8 percent received half pay.

“In an industry shaped by chronically low wages, workers facing a housing crisis following the disaster, who already had no savings, faced increased needs after the earthquake,” the report said. “The region-specific inflation caused prices and rents to rise as well. In such a period, even legally entitled annual leaves became intertwined with the financial difficulties of the workers.”

Worse still were the psychological challenges workers faced and continue to face. Due to ethics concerns, researchers refrained from probing respondents about their trauma. Yet details about their struggles seeped through. Those same workers who were called back and did not receive a salary while they were gone were also individuals who suffered the loss of family, friends and acquaintances. “Fear” and “challenge” reoccurred frequently in workers’ quantitative responses.

“The pressure to swiftly come came to work exerted by factories, combined with the lack of paid leave, caused serious financial distress among the workers,” the report said. “This distress is then combined with the psychological and social needs of the workers in [the] midst of a disaster. Workers had to balance their need to process what happened and the need to help the communities however they could.”

These negative emotions extended to the lack of physical security many continued to feel. Only 41 percent of respondents said their workplaces incurred no damage. In contrast, 34 percent observed medium to heavy damage. Less than half of workers, or 45 percent, reported that inspections were carried out by authorized institutions. And some of the observed damage, they said, hasn’t been repaired despite these checks.

Migrant workers from Syria bore the brunt of the pain. Those who were interviewed did not take any leave but instead returned quickly to work. “The fact that migrant workers express the most disadvantaged positions in this research is indicative of the precarious conditions of migrant workers in the textile and garment sector,” the report said. It quoted one refugee as saying that “everyone sees us differently because we are Syrian. Our rights are being neglected wherever we work.”

The report summed up the plight of those who had to toil under an impossible situation, where the fashion churn is prioritized over safety and wellbeing, as such: “The worker, upon being called to work early, returns without really having financially and mentally recovered,” it said. “He comes due to the risk of dismissal and the fear of not being able to make ends meet, tries to rebuild their damaged home or life in the affected city. Amidst the significant waves of aid seen on screens and social media after the earthquake, they have often not received help from their employer.”

Some workers referred to their protracted shifts not as “overtime” but “mandatory overtime,” which they capitulated to not out of fears of getting axed but because they would not otherwise be able to survive on their current salaries. Only 31 of the 130 respondents, or nearly 24 percent, said they do not work overtime at all. One of them said that “if the work doesn’t get done, then overtime every day.” “Systematic and routine” verbal abuse, known in industry parlance as “mobbing,” is commonplace.

“I am a mother of two children,” one worker said. “I rent my house, and I earn the minimum wage. I work in shifts. My life revolves between work and home. I can’t even find time to rest.”

Fashion brands need to “proactively” take responsibility for working conditions at their suppliers by ensuring continued wage payments and providing flexibility on outstanding orders, particularly as the climate breakdown exacerbates the frequency of future disasters, such as floods and storms, the report said.

“This would have to include [an] absolute commitment to worker safety, including inspection of potentially damaged buildings before they are taken in production again; financial protection for workers who are unable to come to work, including ensuring their right to termination benefits; and addressing verbal harassment and mobbing in factories,” it said.

The brands most frequently mentioned by workers included H&M Group, Zara owner Inditex, Levi Strauss and VF Corp.’s The North Face and Vans, along with local label LC Waikiki.

A spokesperson for H&M said that the Swedish retailer has maintained a close dialogue with its suppliers in the affected areas to “understand their need for support” and continues to support them with “active engagement” from its colleagues on the ground. The Monki and Cos owner was also flexible with deliveries and accepted delays from “the very first moment,” the representative said, keeping this flexibility in the months following the earthquakes and expediting payments to suppliers.

Similarly, VF Corp. worked to “confirm that workers’ rights were upheld according to our above standards,” including reviewing factories in impacted cities for safety by certified engineers, a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal. “No impacted factories were penalized for delivery delays. Additionally, we tracked the number of factory workers employed before and after the earthquake to monitor for potential issues of forced resignation and proper severance payments.” The representative also noted that the VF Foundation and VF brands donated funds and products to the UN refugee agency.

Inditex, Levi’s and LC Waikiki did not respond to emails requesting comment.

The report said that the findings demonstrate the need for new agreements and solutions specific to crises such as earthquakes, including the legally binding and enforceable severance guarantee fund endorsed by the #PayYourWorkers agreement, a coalition of 280 trade unions and labor rights groups to which the Clean Clothes Campaign belongs. Signatory brands would have to ensure that their suppliers pay regular wages on time or provide full back wages for past crises, issue full severance pay during factory closures or mass layoffs, and respect workers’ freedom of association, among other things.

“Considering that garment and textile production is concentrated in areas particularly vulnerable for the effects of climate change, it is clear that the sector’s ethical standards, or binding rules where possible, need to account for such disasters,” the report said. “Concrete indicators of the value given to life during disaster periods should be worked on without waiting for disasters to occur. Humanitarian aid is never a substitute for companies taking direct responsibility for the workers who depend on them for their wages and just working conditions.”

One worker’s comment threw that sentiment into stark relief. “I learned whose life is valuable and whose is worthless during the earthquake,” the person said. “The lives of workers like us are very worthless.”

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