Turkish garment workers earn a quarter of a living wage – Sourcing Journal

Garment workers in Turkey who receive the legal minimum wage earn just a quarter of what would be a living wage, according to a new survey.

Workers making clothes for a wide range of Western brands, including Adidas, Gap, H&M, Levi Strauss and Zara owner Inditex, are barely able to support themselves, according to a field study by Clean Clothes Campaign Turkey, including interviews with 138 workers in Istanbul and Izmir in October.

A living wage is defined as the wage a worker must receive within the limits of one legal working day to lead a sufficiently decent life. It must cover basic food needs (3,000 calories per day for an adult), clothing, health, education, rent, transportation and family savings. The International Labor Organization declares that a living wage is a basic human right.

While the situation has persisted since Turkey became a major fashion exporter in the 1980s, the organization said, conditions have deteriorated in recent years. Turkey was and still is in the grip of an economic crisis. The rising cost of food, fuel, medicine and other basic necessities has driven millions of the country’s citizens to the brink of poverty.

“Due to hyperinflation, garment workers in Turkey face the intractable problem of providing for their families,” said Bego Demir, coordinator of Clean Clothes Campaign Turkey. “The state gives incentives to employers, but it does not control the application of labor law in the sector.

Deriteks Sendikası, a local union, estimates that 1.26 million people are employed in Turkey’s textile industry. Clean Clothes Turkey, however, says that number is likely three times higher due to a thriving informal sector supported by a largely migrant workforce. In 2019, clothing and footwear exports accounted for 10.6% of Turkey’s exports. The national clothing industry is the world’s seventh largest clothing exporter, but the third in the European Union after China and Bangladesh.

Increases in the statutory minimum wage have not kept pace with the weakening purchasing power of the lira, the report says. Even then, the Turkish government failed to follow “minimum practices to make working conditions compatible with the law”. Only one in three garment workers earn the legal minimum wage, including overtime, researchers have found. They added that the current minimum wage is 4,253 lira ($246) but that a basic living wage would be at least 13,000 lira ($750).

Unions have high barriers to recognition, even if they are not actively blocked by factory owners, Clean Clothes Campaign Turkey said. Legal protections for workers, especially those involving the right to freedom of association, either “lukewarm” or absent. The result is that more than half of all workers who sew clothes in Turkey do not have an employment contract or do not benefit from social security. Exploitation, especially of immigrants, refugees, women and children, is rampant, with workers often working excessive hours to cover their expenses.

Clean Clothes Campaign Turkey said it was clear there was no sustainable plan to tackle informal employment or improve working conditions in the country’s textile industry. Despite laws that superficially support the right of workers to unionize, workplaces that flout these rules have always been tolerated, the organization said. Investigators found ample evidence of double-counting, with factories keeping a legally compliant register for show and another containing “actual” wages, hours worked and overtime pay.

Until effective EU legislation strengthens the protection of workers’ rights in Turkey, brands cannot ignore these blind spots just because they want to continue producing at lower cost, Clean Clothes Campaign Turkey said.

“This research shows that the Turkish government must meet its oversight obligations to ensure the law is followed,” Demir said. “All brands that have their supply chain in Turkey must also ensure that all workers behind their products enjoy all their rights.”

Michael A. Bynum