A day on the factory floor with a young Syrian refugee

By Laura Pitel and Mary Turner

In Turkey, poverty and isolation have forced thousands of children into work

Mohammed Nour Abdullah in the workshop in Gaziantep, where he works 12 hours a day

At 6am, seven-year-old Mohammed Nour Abdullah sets out for work. He walks past a park, along a busy road, turns down a side street and slips through a pink doorway. Inside is a workshop the size of a large classroom. All day long it buzzes with the whirr and thrum of machinery and the tinny sound of pop music played from a mobile phone. The air smells of sweat and freshly dyed fabric. There is a constant blur of blue denim, as jeans are snipped, stitched, folded and packed.

The older boys and girls are hunched over, pushing pairs of trousers through sewing machines at a rate of seven or eight pairs a minute. Mohammed Nour’s job is to turn the finished jeans the right way around, stuffing his thin arms down each leg and pulling it inside out. He does this for 12 hours a day, Monday to Saturday — a 72-hour week for which he earns TL50 ($15).

Mohammed Nour is Syrian. Four years ago, his family fled from Aleppo to Gaziantep, about 60 miles away across Turkey’s southern border. Like thousands of other child refugees in Turkey, he has never been to school.

“Of course we would like to send him,” says his mother, Ayesha, whose other son, aged 10, also works in the factory and whose daughter, aged 13, stays with her at home. “But life in Turkey is so expensive. We just cannot afford it.”

The eruption of protests against the Syrian government in 2011 was followed by a civil war that has brought violence and mass displacement. About 11m Syrians are now refugees and more than 3m of them live in Turkey. The Turkish government has won international praise for its response to the Syrian crisis — especially for providing free healthcare and building well-organised refugee camps with hot water, street lighting and playgrounds. Still, 90 per cent of Syrians in Turkey live outside these zones, renting from private landlords in towns and cities across the country.

Some have found good jobs or set up businesses, but for most life is a struggle. Housing is expensive, and formal, well-paid employment is almost impossible to find. Many parents feel they have no choice but to send their children to work. In some cases, young people are supplementing the income of the adults in the family. In others, they are the only ones who can find work as unscrupulous employers seek to take advantage of cheap labour.

No one knows the exact number of working children, but school enrolment figures offer a clue. Although the Turkish government has made significant progress in improving attendance, Unicef estimates that 380,000 of the country’s 870,000 school-aged Syrians are receiving no formal education. Child labour is one of the driving factors.

Unicef’s anecdotal evidence suggests the number of working children is on the rise. Some work in factories, others as seasonal agricultural workers or street vendors selling bottles of water and tissues. Either way, the impact is devastating, says Philippe Duamelle, Unicef’s Turkey representative.

“Child labour harms the mental, social, physical and psychological development of children. It holds them back from going to school and having opportunities for play and leisure,” he says.

In Gaziantep, a major Turkish textiles hub, many Syrians are employed in small workshops that act as subcontractors for larger factories. They produce shoes and clothes that are sold across Turkey, the Middle East and Europe, part of a textile industry worth $40bn a year.

Conditions can be dangerous and pay is far below Turkey’s minimum wage of TL480 per week. Children in workshops say the rate for young adults is TL160 per week, with the smallest children receiving just TL50.

Turkish law forbids hiring workers younger than 15 and limits the working hours of under-18s. The Fair Wear Foundation, whose member brands work with 155 Turkish suppliers to improve working conditions in the clothing industry, says the government had made some progress in reducing the number of Turkish children in factories. After the start of the Syrian conflict, however, its members reported a “sharp increase” in child labour.

Putting Syrian children into school is a complex task. One challenge is to provide enough school places — almost two-thirds of the Syrian children currently enrolled in school in Turkey are attending temporary education centres, run by Syrian teachers who provide lessons in Arabic. These often operate in Turkish schools in a “double shift” — the Turkish students study in the morning and the Syrians in the afternoons.

There are other hurdles: some parents are unaware of their children’s rights to free schooling in Turkey. A crackdown by the government on foreign and local NGOs has hit the informal education programmes that were picking up some of the slack.

The government has said it aims to close all temporary centres over the next few years and absorb refugee children into the Turkish school system. Aid groups say this would be an important step towards integrating Syrians, but warn it will be difficult for pupils to make this transition, especially those who speak no Turkish or have already missed years of school.

At the same time it is necessary to tackle the root causes that force families to send their children out to work. Helping businesses to formally hire adult Syrians would enable refugees to claim their right to the minimum wage and earn enough to support an entire family.

In January 2016, Turkey made the bold decision to enable Syrians to obtain work permits, but the results have been disappointing. Last year, just 13,000 permits were issued to Syrians.

Omar Kadkoy, a research associate at the Ankara-based think-tank Tepav, says there are currently few incentives for employers to take on the extra cost and bureaucracy involved in formally hiring Syrians. “Unfortunately, the private sector is profiting from the ‘flexible labour’,” he says.

Politicians could help by ensuring better enforcement of anti-exploitation laws and offering enticements to businesses that hire Syrians. However, their room to manoeuvre is limited by an unemployment rate of 10 per cent among Turkish citizens. Child labour is a problem for Turkish children too, with an estimated 850,000 of them working.

The government, which says the nation has spent $25bn on helping the refugee population, argues that western governments need to do more to shoulder their share of the burden.

A deal signed between the EU and Turkey last year to stem the flow of refugees to Europe included €3bn in aid to support the Syrian population. The centrepiece is a €348m cash payment programme to alleviate the worst cases of poverty. Around 170,000 refugee households are now receiving monthly payments of TL120 under a scheme administered by the World Food Programme and the Turkish Red Crescent. In June, an add-on payment to reward school attendance was launched.

The amounts involved are small — often less than a child could earn at work — and Syrians complain that the criteria for the family support card are too strict. Mohammed Nour’s mother, for example, has been turned down four times. “They say that with only three children I do not qualify,” she says.

EU officials overseeing the scheme say that they have relaxed the rules to bring in more people. They argue that the cash can make a vital difference to families on the breadline.

Time is running out for the Syrian children who have already missed years of school. Aid organisations say the scourge of child labour in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan risks creating a “lost generation”, who will grow up to become poorly educated adults without formal skills.

“The impact of child labour is lifelong,” says Bill Van Esveld, senior children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The tragedy is that refugee children who work do it to provide money for their family, but then, without an education, they get trapped in a cycle of poverty and exploitation.”

That is the danger facing Mohammed Nour. His gruelling schedule takes its toll. On the factory floor, he is smiling and uncomplaining but, after coming home to eat his lunch, he often cries before returning to the workshop.

When he finishes work at 7.30pm, his hands stained blue with dye, he and the other factory children rush out into the park to catch the last of the fading light. At about 9pm, he runs home and eats a snack before falling asleep, exhausted by his long day. Then he gets up early the next morning and starts all over again.