Labour is cheap, refugee labour is dirt cheap in Turkey

Many of the roughly 3.9 million refugees in Turkey, most of them Syrian, are illegally exploited in labour-intensive jobs without any employment rights.

Refugees are employed in almost every sector, especially in areas such as car repair, quarrying, lime kilns, mining, agricultural work and producing building materials. Some 3.5 million Syrians are registered as refugees in Turkey, according to the UN refugee agency. The rest are mainly from Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq.

Fundamental rights such as annual leave, weekends off, overtime, severance pay and bonuses are almost entirely ignored where Syrians are concerned. The average wage of a Syrian worker is half that of their Turkish counterpart. Another problem is that wages are often paid late or never paid at all.

Small and medium-sized businesses prefer to employ refugees in labour-intensive jobs due to the low wage costs and the ability to hire and fire at will.

"They do not mind working too much. They work up to 8 or 9 pm. There are no demands like days off. ‘It's enough to have a job’, they say. I employ three refugees at the cost of a single Turkish worker. But we both benefit. They make a living," said the owner of a tyre company in Ankara who employs two Syrians and one Iraqi.

The working conditions of refugee women are much worse. According to a warning letter from the Ministry of Labour, Social Services and Family, unregistered women refugees are vulnerable to abuse, unsafe working conditions and are exposed to all forms of exploitation.

The letter said refugee women workers felt they could not make any official complaint when they faced molestation, sexual harassment and similar issues due to working illegally. They are forced to work before and after giving birth, contrary to employment laws, it said, and some employers seize the passports of refugee workers.

According to the Interior Ministry, 1.66 million Syrian refugees in Turkey are children under the age of 18. Many of them are also employed by textile companies, car repair workshops and in shops, restaurants and bakeries, receiving as little $2 to $4 a day. Many are subject to violence, as well as exploitation.

Orphans are especially vulnerable. Unprotected and orphan refugee children are regularly exposed to violence by employers. The violence against these children is normalised and assumed to be necessary by the employers.

The Family, Labour and Social Services Ministry recommends refugees facing problems working illegally to obtain a work permit.

The Turkish immigration authority said last month the number of Syrians under temporary protection in Turkey was 3.5 million. Of these, only 200,000 live in refugee camps and the remaining 3.3 million people are spread across the country.

The most recent statistics from the Family, Labour and Social Services Ministry on the number of work permits issued to foreigners is from 2016. According to the data, there were only 13,290 Syrians working legally in Turkey.

The government’s labour minister told parliament in November last year that 15,022 work permits had been granted to Syrians from January 2016 to that date. The Refugees Association said the number of Syrians with work permits had reached 20,970 by the end of 2017.

While a law to make it easier for Syrians to obtain work permits came into force in 2016, it is estimated that fewer than one in a 100 refugees are working legally in Turkey.

But illegal or unregistered work is not confined to Syrians and other foreigners. According to government figures, 33.7 percent of 9.8 million workers in Turkey are unregistered and without insurance.

It is hard to expect employers, who force even Turkish citizens to work illegally, to apply different standards when it comes to refugees.