Refugee workers mistreated at Turkey’s hazelnut farms -- NY Times

Syrian refugees looking to make money picking hazelnuts in Turkey perform arduous tasks for long hours and receive only half the pay promised by middlemen, the New York Times reported on Monday.

“We made just enough to cover the cost of getting there and getting back,” said 57-year-old Shakar Rudani, who lives in a Turkish village on the Syrian border. “Plus our living expenses. We returned with nothing.”

Some 70 percent of all hazelnuts come from the thousands of small farms gripping the hillsides of Turkey’s Black Sea region, including those that end up in Ferrero’s Nutella spread. It is a crop known for hazards and hardships, as well as child labour, problems that may be exacerbated by the growing number of Syrian refugee workers, said the Times.

Among the 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, few have work permits. They lack legal protections and Turkey’s labour code doesn’t apply to small farms, so oversight falls to the confectionary companies, said the NY Times.

“Comprehensive monitoring of Turkey’s hazelnut farms is an exceptionally elusive goal because they are vast in number and independent. Plus, the minimum wage, which nearly every farmer offers, won’t keep a family above the country’s poverty line. And that is before pay is whittled down by middlemen, who connect workers to farms and often pocket more than the standard 10 percent cut of wages,” said the NY Times.

It is impossible for major confectioners to satisfy demand without buying heavily from Turkey, which means supporting a crop with glaring humanitarian flaws, according to the Times.

Ferrero, which also makes Kinder and Rocher chocolates, is the biggest and most secretive buyer, refusing to name any of the farms its suppliers by from. It’s impossible to judge the success of any Ferrero’s programs to improve farming practices, because the company will not share any information about them, said the Times.

“In six years of monitoring, we have never found a single hazelnut farm in Turkey in which all decent work principle standards are met,” said Richa Mittal, the director of innovation and research for the Fair Labor Association, which has done fieldwork on Turkey’s hazelnut crop.

Last summer, a middleman told Rudani that the pay would be as much as 100 lira per day, according to his son Muhammad.  “But when my father got there, he realized that all the supervisors were cheating people,” said Muhammad. “One of them told my father, ‘We’ll give you 50 lira a day, and that’s it.’”

They stayed. And found the work, which involves collecting the nuts from steep mountainsides, then hauling them up and down the mountains and onto trucks, extremely difficult. The hours are 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week.

“The main problem is that there is nowhere to stand up,” said Abrahim Khalil, a cousin of Rudani. “The ground is so steep. You can never just stand up straight.”

Legally, Turkey’s middlemen, or dayıbaşı, are required to have a primary school education and a permit that is renewed every three years. In practice, they are unregulated and untrained, according to the NY Times.

“The dayibasi often provide laborers with between-harvest loans that can result in a form of indentured servitude. More common, Syrians say, are lies about wages, which are typically handed over in end-of-harvest lump sums. Until then, laborers are paid just enough to cover food and rent and given ‘business cards’ — essentially an i.o.u.— for each day in the field,” said the Times.

Saniye Dedeoğlu, a professor of labour economics at Turkey’s Muğla University, said the system is designed to ensure loyalty.

“To form a working group, you need 15 to 20 people, and if someone is indebted to you, they are unlikely to leave for a different job,” she said. “But we have seen so many people in the field who have collected a bunch of business cards and the middleman has just disappeared.”

71-year-old veteran middleman Ibrahim Ergun said he had never cheated his labourers. But admitted that the practice was common.

“Most middlemen take money and don’t give rights to their workers,” he said.