Emre Eren Korkmaz is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Oxford’s Department of International Development. His research project is funded under a Newton International Fellowship granted by British Academy. Additionally, since May 2017 he has been a junior research fellow at St. Edmund Hall, Oxford.

Korkmaz has extensive work in the field of labour-market engagement of Syrian refugees in Turkey. He was a migrant-refugee specialist at Ethical Trading Initiative’s Turkey Program between August 2016 and April 2017 and he worked as a consultant for the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre between August 2016 and October 2017.

That’s why we made a request for an interview on Syrian refugees’ access to the labor market in Turkey.

Mehmet Enes Beşer and Amy Pitonak prepared questions.

 

There is an increasing focus on the employment and working conditions of Syrian refugees in Turkey. In order to promote labor integration, international institutions like UNHCR and NGOs implement & support several projects. But do you think that the Turkish government has taken effective initiative there?

That’s a difficult question. We may begin by questioning the policies of all states intervening in the Syrian civil war that causes millions to flee their countries. Then we may examine the EU and other wealthy countries on their negative approach towards hosting refugees. It is not fair to judge solo the policies of authorities in the neighbouring countries without debating such an anti-refugee political approach pursued by the EU, and this unhealthy approach guides them to reach unethical agreements with other countries including Libya to stop refugees and immigrants arriving Europe.

Then it is possible to question the impact of various projects convened by international agencies and  NGOs. As the given working and living conditions of refugees, the impact of such projects shall not be condemned but be questioned.

The Turkish government has been taken some steps further mainly in education and employment areas. Refugees have right to receive work permits, so they can legally work in the labour market and refugee children can access the education. But apart from the massive number of refugees in Turkey and structural problems of the industry and education which present difficulties for citizens, Turkey has been under State of Emergency rule since the coup attempt. This creates additional uncertainty, given the high turnover of bureaucrats, closure of NGOs and other related anti-democratic measures. Such political conditions do not provide necessary conditions for the state, social actors and NGOs to focus on particular policy issues with the aim of finding long-term solutions. In a nutshell, there are some positive steps but also challenges and what makes things more difficult is that these problems in employment or education are faced by both citizens and refugees. So, it’s not easy to address only refugee-related issues, a more comprehensive and collaborative approach is needed and yet, there is no such environment.

Another issue is that there is no any pressure on the government from the opposition in favour of refugees and citizens. On the contrary, the oppositional political actors scapegoat refugees and do not serve to the peaceful coexistence. For instance, in general, social democrat parties support the refugee rights and citizenship for refugees but in Turkey, we observe the opposite, and this leaves government to decide whatever they’d like on the citizenship issue and avoids a joint approach or debate at least on how to formulate policies long-term policies for refugees.    

 

As you know well, most refugees seek employment in the informal sector, as the hurdles one has to jump over to gain legal employment remain high. They also face unhealthy, unstable, and dangerous working conditions.Could you say that the Turkish media give adequate attention to the horrible working conditions of Syrian refugees?

The media apparently doesn’t give adequate attention to the working conditions of refugees. It is very rare to read such stories, mostly when a refugee worker loses his-her life in occupational accidents, for instance, last week 8 workers were killed in a textile plant in Bursa and one of them was a Syrian medical doctor, or we may read news stories of unidentified, unregistered Syrian refugees who lost their lives at work. Another source of these stories is the international media coverages when they uncover refugees and children working for transnational corporations/high street fashion brands. Or sometimes, the media portrays a local dispute between locals and refugees as a conflict triggered by inappropriate attitudes of refugees but then it is uncovered that refugees were innocent, they were just asking for payment of their labour force, and this was manipulated by people who try to steal their labour.

From a different perspective, last month, a minister stated that they should convince refugees to stay in Turkey even all decide to return to Syria because Turkish manufacture depends on Syrian labour. Or the CEO of LC Waikiki stated in the fashion week that thanks to Syrians, the machines could operate. However, the media still did not prefer to move forward to discuss the working conditions of Syrians which business and government praise. Or in many cities including Izmir and Istanbul, Syrian, Turkish and Kurdish shoe-makers went on a strike for a week again in October, but this couldn’t take attention of the media.

In textile, construction, services, agriculture millions of refugees have been working. The media and the academia should act firmly to get rid of the image of lazy people benefitting from social aids, enjoying themselves on the beach kind of nonsense and should portrait refugees as hardworking people being employed in textile, construction and agriculture, contributing to the national economy and many studies prove that there is no any evidence that their existence increased the unemployment rate of locals, they filled the labour shortages.

 

In your article, you stressed that Syrian refugees should be acknowledged as “active agents”. Recently, a Turkish minister said, “Even if Syrians decide to leave, we won’t let them”. My question is how would Syrian refugees become “active agents” while they are seen as the source of cheap labor?

This is the core feature of being a society. Nothing is one-sided, and none of the social communities could be vulnerable and passive actors for a long time. Refugees managed to flee their countries to achieve peace and a better life for their families. They may accept some conditions imposed on them, but they pursue a survival strategy based on their networks to create their life-worlds in the Habermasian terms.

The main reason for all the ongoing projects and programmes of transnational garment brands in Turkey to convince their suppliers to employ refugees is not only the consequence of the media coverage or NGO reports. That’s because Syrian refugees working informally in textile-garment industry challenges the existing industrial relations and supply chain management model in Turkey. Turkish textile-garment industry provides good quality and cheap goods with fast delivery options based on a flexibility given by the multi-layered supplier system and collaboration between formal and informal economies. While all formal and informal workers were Turkish citizens in the past, this model could work that may shift workers between formal and informal working conditions, (when Turkish manufacturers produce for Western brands, they should obey corporate social responsibility principles, and they can’t employ informal workers, but they can manage to obey these principles and also benfit from the informal economy through double-book keeping-not taxing the exact salary or formalising some workers for a temporary period) but the with the Syrian refugees, Turkish employers lost the previous flexibility because they can’t easily get the work permits and it is far more costly. This demonstrates that even you consider refugees as a cheap labour source to exploit, their presence in the industry affect the industrial relations that force you to take a step further to deal with this issue.

 

This summer, we conduct a preliminary research for our report on the Syrian refugees’ labor integration. Almost every employer avoid answering, whereas the questions are not distracting. It may be expected. However, the Syrians were the same. Even some of them get mad. Do they fear to lose their job?

It depends on the conditions that you had surveyed, and maybe you didn’t visit them in good time. The issue is that we don’t have much and permanent information about the internal social networks and perceptions of refugees. We can’t just measure their opinions with some surveys. Syrian refugees have strong social networks, and they use social media very effectively. But they aren’t represented well within the society. For instance, trade unions in garment industry do not have any refugee member. There are no many mixed associations. As far as I know, there is no any legal, grassroots Syrian association that recruit and represent Syrian workers. We gain most information from some NGOs dealing with refugees but most of these NGOs provide services for refugees, they do not represent them.

Also, most of these manufacturing units are generally small-scale workshops. Mostly, less than 20 workers are employed. And they are usually using informal workforce. As refugees generally find jobs based on their social networks, refugee workers might have some ethnic, religious ties with the employer. So they may share some common feelings. They might work in bad conditions, but they need to keep their jobs to survive.

I am not sure if all refugees fear to lose their jobs. Some recent studies in Ankara and Istanbul demonstrate that there is a high turnover of workers in industrial zones as a result of informal conditions, and refugee workers act flexibly to change their jobs immediately when they find a better wage. This is the main reason for the slight increase in the wages of refugees.

 

Citing from the article, “despite the hundreds of thousands of refugees who are estimated to work in the textile industry, only 13,298 refugees were granted work permits by the end of 2016, of which only approximately 2,000 were given for workers in the industrial sectors.” So, what are the reasons behind such a low number?

Here as well, we observe the lack of dialogue. When we talk with the social actors in the industry, some arguments blame refugees for not willing to obtain work permits. When we talk with some Syrian refugees, they blame Turkish employers who would like to benefit from the cheap labour. When you consider the work permit fee and other social security costs, an employer can employ two informal refugees instead of one refugee with a work permit. But many studies also show in the UK and other countries as well, refugees and immigrants do not show a unique attitude on this issue. Some may like to work in informal conditions to receive further humanitarian aid etc., but there is undoubtedly a group of refugee that look for legal jobs that mean better working conditions and higher salaries. Here, the state should be firm, and provide incentives and support for the legal employment of refugees.

 

Similar to the other countries, there is a backlash in the form of “stealing our jobs”. Are there any signs that this could turn into a physical conflict?

There may be physical conflicts, but there may be joint struggles as well as we could observe in the recent strikes of shoe-makers. The state, the media, the opposition and the industry actors have significant roles to prevent such dangers and encourage peaceful coexistence and rights for everyone.

 

In your most recent report on Syrians working informally in Turkey, you state that there is a need for job training and language lessons alongside the granting of work permits. Has any progress been made on this issue, and if so, does it come primarily from the government or civil society organizations?

There are some projects on skills training and language courses. These are conducted by the authorities, international agencies and also NGOs. This is not a simple task. There’ve been hundred thousands of refugees who have been working for years, so they could solve some of these problems in their daily lives under informal conditions, these should be supported to find legal employment, mainly through ISKUR (National Employment Agency), there are many Syrian kids going to school, they’ll look for jobs in the near future, there should be a plan and policy to support these and there are unemployed refugees who would like to work that may urgently need such projects. But these should complement each other, refugees, who join such projects, should be able to find legal jobs. This is also related to the simplifying of the work permit regulation, mainly about the article that requires refugees to work in the registered city.

 

Do you believe that immigrants can use social networks acquired while working informally to “upgrade” to formal employment later on?

The informal economy is not a new issue for Turkey. There has been an enormous informal economy in Turkey for decades. It’s lower than the past, but still, over 30 % and refugees and immigrants pursue their survival strategies within this informal economy. It is also necessary to state that informal and formal employees are working together, so these two forms of economy are not isolated from each other. Historically Turkish citizens, for instance, the ones who migrate from rural areas to urban areas, had worked in the informal economy but after a while, they could find a chance to shift to the formal economy, so this was a temporary period. Then the primary form of the informal economy becomes double bookkeeping for workers, they receive higher wages, but they are registered from minimum salary. For refugees and immigrants, this informal position is not a temporary period. It is challenging for them to shift to the formal economy. It is costly for the employers. Also, refugees may not like to lose the humanitarian aid they receive. So the state should not act very strictly, in fact, there is no any motivation to eliminate the informal economy, but should create ways for a smooth transition from informal to the formal economy.