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Syrian workers in Turkey

We live together and we work together. Some 1.6 million Syrians in Turkey are of working age, but just 20,000 have work permits. As a result, tens of thousands of Syrians are working in cities all over Turkey without documentation or any basic labour rights in every field, especially construction, textiles and agriculture.

Syrians work more hours than anyone else, and yet they earn less than all other workers. They receive their wages late, or not at all. They enjoy no benefits and no job security, while working Syrian children and women are frequently subjected to harassment and discrimination while trying to earn a living.

Around the world, migrant workers do the jobs that locals don’t want to. In Turkey, however, Syrian workers do the very worst work for the lowest wages. According to a World Bank study titled The Impact of Syrian Refugees on the Turkish Labor Market, cities with large refugee populations have an above average unemployment rate coupled with wages that are even below the minimum wage.

This notwithstanding, it is important to avoid jumping to the wrong conclusions: after all, it is not refugees who are stealing our jobs, but the bosses.

The latest International Labour Organization’s (ILO) World Employment Social Outlook Trends Report highlights the global dimension of Turkey’s situation, noting that in general, 56 per cent of Syrian asylum seekers around the world work in short-term and unregulated jobs.

One rule for Syrian workers, another rule for locals
Since time immemorial greedy bosses have told workers: “There are thousands of jobless people who could take your place!” Today, in Turkey they say: “There are thousands of Syrians who will work for less money!”

Syrians don’t get yearly raises or benefits such as bonus pay for travel, food or holidays. While the idea of overtime is unheard of in most workplaces, in the places where it is paid, Syrians don’t receive it, unlike their local coworkers. Syrians also work an average of 12.4 hours per day.

In addition, in agriculture, refugees often have to pay a commission of up to 25 per cent to middlemen for shelter and other needs. In Turkey there is a new sub-contractor system in fields and worksites across the country where local workers are get Syrians to do their jobs, while paying them a fraction of their wage to do so.

If you hear someone remark, “there are no locals working in textiles,” it’s not an exaggeration. From fly-by-night sweatshops to retail outlets, Arabic is the new lingua franca. Conversely, however, one of the biggest problems for Syrians in the workforce is undoubtedly language. There are poets, writers and journalists who were making a living thanks to their language back home but who are now cleaning toilets in Turkey – and, because they don’t speak the language, they’re ostracised. Educated and professional Syrians can’t practice their occupations. Pharmacists and lawyers have now become waiters or construction workers. Muhammad Ahmed Faris, Syria’s first astronaut, is currently living as a refugee in Istanbul, while Turkey is still trying to establish its own space station.

Syrians do not benefit from health and safety precautions where they work, nor do they work in places where there are inspections. According to the Workers’ Health and Work Safety Assembly of Turkey (İSİG), 63 Syrians were killed on the job in 2016, while 49 more died in 2017. Determining how many have been injured, however, is virtually impossible.

A significant portion of social services for Syrians are provided by local and international NGOs. In general, however, issues such as workers’ rights are ignored. Apart from labour action by shoemakers and construction workers, we can’t even say that the plight of Syrian workers is on the radar of Turkish unions, even though oppressed members of the working class who speak different languages can add so much to the workers’ movement. Ultimately, all workers must raise their voices in support of equal pay for equal work for everyone.

In Turkey, the country with the most child refugees in the world, 1.3 million young Syrians are growing up facing illness, poverty and sexual exploitation. Because they’ve been left without quality education, they are destined for a future of unskilled work.

At present, however, they mainly work alongside their families in all sorts of sectors, including textiles, construction or seasonal agricultural work.

And like children, Syrian women also face harassment, exploitation and poverty. Professional women, meanwhile, find it difficult to get a job, which means, unsurprisingly, that their unemployment rate is above average.

Some 500,000 children of Syrian families were born in Turkey and are now growing up in the country. In so doing, they have become part of Turkey’s working class. The fundamental solution to the problems of Syrian workers in Turkey lies in fostering peace in Syria, but before that day, there are urgent questions that require remedies – and even after that day, many Syrians will stay and work in Turkey.

These new entrants to the workforce must receive legal status forthwith; unregulated work and the denial of rights must cease; officials must identify those with professional qualifications and those with educational needs; discrimination and harassment against women and child workers must end; and unions must open their doors to migrants.

Ultimately, we might have been born in different places, but we must fight to foster workplace equality for all.