How Fashion Brands Can Safeguard Workers in Earthquake-Hit Turkey

Labor campaigners are urging fashion’s biggest names to support garment and textile workers in Turkey as recovery efforts continue in the wake of a massive earthquake and an equally devastating aftershock that battered the southern and western parts of the country, along with parts of Syria, in early February, killing 50,000 people and causing widespread damage to a region housing a sizeable portion of the industry.

International brands sourcing from the impacted areas, together with factory owners and the Turkish government, must ensure that workers aren’t being yoked with additional financial hardship, on top of the suffering they’ve already endured as a result of the disaster, said #PayYour Workers, a campaign demanding economic relief for garment workers that is endorsed by more than 280 trade unions and labor rights groups, including the Asia Floor Wage Alliance and Clean Clothes Campaign.

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Many factories, #PayYourWorkers said in a statement Monday, have opened “recklessly soon” because they feared financial penalties from their buyers for delays in deliveries.

“One week after the first earthquake, factory owners in the heavily affected areas were already urging workers, many of whom had lost family members or their homes, to return to work,” the group said. “Reports have already come in about garment workers not being allowed to freely move out of a factory during aftershocks in the area.”

While many newer facilities withstood the brunt of the temblors—and initially opened their doors to survivors needing food and shelter—production ceased in many places because of the damaged infrastructure and displaced employees. It is of “utmost importance” that workers who are unable to return to their job have sufficient income to survive, #PayYourWorkers said, noting that the 133 Turkish lira ($6.93) they currently receive from the state is “far from sufficient to sustain one person, let alone a family.”

Factory owners, it said, are “using the post-earthquake chaos as a pretext to offload risks onto their employees.” It cited Marbit Tekstil, a factory in the province of Adana that produces for Spanish chain Zara and local brand LC Waikiki. The manufacturer, which is shuttering, had originally dismissed its 300 employees without compensation, union representatives claimed. They said that it was only following days of protests that the supplier agreed this week to pay them what they were owed, in accordance to their seniority. Zara and LC Waikiki did not respond to requests for comment, while Marbit Tekstil declined to provide a statement.

Cem Altan, president of the International Apparel Federation and a board member of both the Istanbul Apparel Exporters Association and the Turkish Clothing Manufacturers Association, said he was surprised to hear of #PayYourWorkers’ allegations.

“As far as I know, many brands helped Turkey to recover from this terrible earthquake,” he told Sourcing Journal. “They also supported suppliers by not canceling any production and did not [penalize] for late shipments.”

Altan said it’s important for suppliers to restart their production lines so workers can stay employed. He estimates that 80 percent of the manufacturers near the earthquakes’ epicenters have already done so. “They need business to survive,” he said, adding that all workers in the affected areas are supported by both the Turkish government and the companies they’re employed by. Meanwhile, organizations such as the Turkiye Export Assembly and the Turkish Clothing Manufacturers Association have organized accommodation for those who need it, Altan said.

The İstanbul Apparel Exporters Association, better known as IHKIB, likewise lauded the “valuable” support of the country’s international partners, several of which have contributed to relief efforts. H&M Group, for instance, donated $100,000 to AFAD, the disaster management agency operating under Turkey’s Ministry of Interior, while the H&M Foundation, the philanthropic vehicle operated by the retailer’s founding family, gave $500,000 to the Red Cross/Red Crescent and Save the Children. Zara owner Inditex, meanwhile, shelled out 3 million euros ($3.2 million) to the Red Crescent.

Companies making purchases worth $10 billion have given the message to “continue cooperation” with Turkey, the trade group said. It suggested that Marbit Tekstil’s closure was due to forces other than the earthquakes.

“The Turkish apparel industry has established good connections with international buyers [over the] years,” said Mehmet Kaya, president of the IHKIB sustainability committee, noting the many discussions with brands, as well as the establishment of internal working groups, to address any challenges. “The current support of buyers with a value-chain approach is very [much] appreciated.”

Mustafa Pasahan, vice president of IHKIB, said that production in the affected regions will likely return to normal within a few months. Damage to garment and textile facilities in the key hubs of Malatya and Adiyaman has been limited, he said, which means that the impact of the disaster on apparel production overall “will not be more than 1 percent.”

Capacity in unaffected regions is plentiful, he noted, meaning that buyers are able to shift their production elsewhere, through a mechanism developed with IHKIB, to meet their deadlines. The bigger issue is the availability of employment for full-capacity production. Most city residents fled the impacted provinces to “forget the earthquake tragedy [and] also for housing problems.”

“The main problem is the psychology of earthquake victims,” Pasahan told Sourcing Journal. “They want to forget their tragedy, but [the] earthquakes and some other conditions are hindering full capacity production. It seems the employers need more time to be normalized.”

Turkey earthquake
Brick houses are being built for earthquake victims on March 26, 2023, in Hatay, Turkey.

Still, #PayYourWorkers warned brands against making the same mistakes of the “Covid-19 pandemic era,” when a spate of canceled and suspended orders drove many suppliers to the brink of insolvency. Hundreds of thousands of workers, facing layoffs, furloughs or severely curtailed hours, fell even further below the poverty line, where they struggled with hunger and deprivation.

“It is very possible that some brands may now refuse to pay suppliers when delivery is late, even though delays are a direct and unavoidable result of the earthquake, leaving their suppliers scrambling and further shifting the economic burden onto workers,” said the campaign, which sprung as a response to what it characterizes as wage theft during the pandemic. “It is critical that brands do not repeat Covid-19 pandemic-era patterns of forcing suppliers to fend for themselves. Brands must manage this crisis responsibly and heed their obligations to suppliers and workers.”

Fashion’s leaders must first and foremost ensure wage continuation for workers, requiring—and, equally important, financially enabling—suppliers that are unable to function to keep their workers employed and fully paid for the next six months rather than dismiss them, which the Turkish government has expressly prohibited. Where needed, they should work with manufacturers to assist displaced workers with rental costs and ensure that injured workers and the families of those who died are compensated for medical costs and lost income.

#PayYourWorkers also said that brands should insist that factories not reopen without a thorough engineering inspection. If a structure is declared unsafe, the campaign said, buyers should accept shipment delays without penalty and financially support any repairs and remediation.

“Brands should not force workers and suppliers in Turkey, who are already dealing with the human tragedy of the earthquake, to bear the financial burden of the crisis, while the brands themselves can easily absorb profit losses,” #PayYour Workers said. “Even though contracts between brands and their suppliers are generally crafted primarily in the interest of the brands, now brands have an opportunity to demonstrate that supply chain risk does not need to be pushed down onto those already hit hardest.”

And another thing: don’t forget Syria.

“As vulnerable as every worker is in this time of crisis, the precarity of the situation is higher for Syrian refugees in the area, many of whom are employed in the garment and textile industry,” the group said. “Given that many of them are informally employed, they face heightened risks in standing up for their rights, a reality that brands and factory owners must take into account.”

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