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Due diligence and labour rights 2013 migrants and refugees in the textile sector ILO / Aaron Santos

On the 8th of February 2017, in Paris, the OECD announced its Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains in the Garment and Footwear Sector during its Roundtable on Due Diligence in the Garment and Footwear Sector. Both the guidance and the roundtable meeting paid special attention to the employment of migrant and refugee workers in the textile sector, offering stakeholders (transnational retailers, local manufacturers and suppliers, trade unions, NGOs and public authorities) the opportunity to take concrete steps towards providing decent working conditions for migrant and refugee workers. Having attended the meeting as an expert on these workers within Turkey’s textile industry, the event offered a good opportunity for reflection on the challenges of moving forward towards safe, legal employment within a complex industry.

A due diligence approach

Human rights due diligence is a relatively new concept and this approach allows all stakeholders – including employers, workers and other related stakeholders such as NGOs or state authorities – to collaborate in order to determine the actual and potential risks that harm employees within a workplace or in an industry. Instead of a one-sided decision-making process, this approach is action-oriented and collaborative and calls on all parties to negotiate to address potential and actual risks and to resolve and mitigate the harms caused by them.

Relying solely on state inspections to uncover and resolve labour problems does not tend to bring about effective solutions, particulary in the Global South, where the textile industry is still very significant, and state inspections should therefore be supported by other methods as well. Audits carried out by transnational brands are another way of uncovering and resolving labour issues, but they have limitations. For instance, they cannot cover all of the different tiers of suppliers. They are furthermore complicated by their tendency to conceal responsibility – brands make a choice to use the global supply chain management system, and in fact many labour disputes and precarious working conditions are the consequence of this business model. A due diligence approach, on the other hand, in conjunction with state inspections, might open a new channel for discussion of alternative business models to the traditional global supply chain management system, which may be more conducive to the safe, legal employment of migrant and refugee workers.

OECD's roundtable and session on migrant and refugee workers

Recognising the incorporation of migrant and refugee workers as one of the most significant issues confronting the textile and footwear industry is an important step forwards in addressing the issues raised in relation to their employment. This industry is labour intensive, employing unskilled workers as well as skilled ones, and there are millions of migrants and refugees working in this industry in many countries. For instance in Turkey, it is estimated that approximately 300,000 refugees and migrants are working in the industry informally. For this reason, the OECD allocated a half day for this debate within its two-day long roundtable meeting, as part of which I had the chance to present my opinions about the employment of Syrian refugees[1] in the Turkish textile-apparel industry.

Senior staff from the IOM and OECD, as well as NGO representatives, explained in detail the global situation of labour migration and the textile industry, with specific country reports as case studies also providing valuable points of comparison. For instance it was interesting to learn from the Chinese delegate that China is facing a labour shortage in its textile-apparel industry but that, as its native workers are unwilling to work in the textile industry, there has been a resulting new trend of employing South Asian migrant workers. In a separate account, a delegate from the Jordanian textile industry recounted how in Jordan there is a quota which means that at least 30 per cent of every workforce must be Jordanian citizens. Since there is additionally a special trading incentive offered by the European Union to those who employ Syrian refugees in the textile industry, Jordanian businesses face the dilemma of reducing the proportion of South Asian migrants in their workforces to instead employ Syrian refugees in order to benefit from the offered incentives. At the same time, however, they express dissastisfaction with the perceived lesser productivity of Syrian refugee workers. The Jordanian delegate also expressed the view, as held by some businesspeople, that Syrian refugees in Jordan are not willing to work in the textile industry, instead prefering the construction and service sectors.

Syrian refugees in Turkey, however, are already employed in considerable number in the textile industry, although mainly in the informal economy. Therefore the challenge in Turkey is to open legal channels of employment and provide a smooth transition from informal to formal economy for both refugee workers and self-employed refugees. Since Turkey hosts 3 million Syrians under temporary protection, the situation is not black or white – while there is a necessity to acknowledge its considerable efforts in hosting refugees, there is also a need to provide more support to address the basic problems those refugees face in terms of access to education and housing, and to labour market integration.

Business-led initiatives

The OECD’s initiative, including the publication of its guidelines for multinational companies, is significant because such activities contribute to decision-making processes which may in turn be converted into legally binding agreements at both national and international levels.

While anti-migrant and anti-refugee political currents gain strength both globally and in the European context, there have simultaneously been new initiatives and trends to support the integration of refugees and migrants in their new host countries. Aside from the efforts of various NGOs and civil society movements to welcome refugees, there is also a new trend emerging of business-led initiatives for the employment of refugees and migrants. Multi-stakeholder initiatives, bringing together transnational retailers and brands, trade unions and NGOs, initiate various programmes and projects to support the employment of refugees. For instance, the Ethical Trading Initiative, the Fair Wear Foundation and the Fair Labour Association pursue similar projects promoting discussion about the employment of refugees and encouraging the practice through tools such as government lobbying. Business associations such as Foreign Trade Association have also called for actions to take concrete steps towards the further employment of refugees, and the organisations formulate policies on behalf of its more than 500 members who source from Turkey. There are also joint projects of UN agencies such as the ILO, UNDP, UNHCR and IOM in partnership with NGOs or authorities to tackle labour integration problems of refugees. In addition, various academic research projects aim to understand the current trends that affect employment of refugees.

What is missing?

It is pretty clear that such initiatives are valuable, but they have to this point been limited, benefiting only a small number of refugees through programmes that mainly include skill trainings and language courses, or awareness-raising on applying for work permits and other rights and liberties. Of course within the respective economic, political and social problems faced by many countries which are currently hosting refugees, proposing fair and just policies for millions of refugees is not an easy task, and needs collaboration on long-term planning between public and private actors, who each have different priorities and expectations. We should bear in mind that such small-scale projects as have been seen so far might provide examples of best practice and might effectively be supported to expand coverage to much greater numbers of refugees. Here I would like to argue two issues that need to be debated in this regard.

Who will employ refugees?

Leaving aside the merits of better integrating refugees and migrants into the host workforce, we have to consider who would actually employ them. For instance in Turkey, where all once state-owned enterprises have long been privatised, one cannot ask the state to do so. Transnational brands are present in Turkey through the supplier from whom they source, and so even where they announce new policies to employ refugees, they are also not in a position to directly employ them. Therefore, in short, we are asking local manufacturers to employ refugees. These companies do not have charitable aims; rather, they are profit-motivated operations trying to survive in a highly competitive global business environment. As a consequence of transnational companies’ supply chain management practices, they are under constant pressure to lower costs and speed up production. If Turkish or Jordanian manufacturers are not convinced of the merits of employing refugees, it is not easy to find a sustainable solution to this problem. Otherwise, as a result of the pressure coming from their customers, these manufacturers may prefer to employ a few refugees in their workplaces in order to prove that they do something in favour of refugees, but in fact are doing so on a very superficial level.

Taking a long-term view of this issue, employers must be convinced that they can employ refugees within their business (i.e. profit- and productivity-oriented) logic, and to do so they must update their human resources policies to simplify the adaptation process of refugees to their new workplaces. As well as providing employment contracts written in Arabic, and perhaps employing Arabic-speaking human resources staff, management, workers, line managers and foremen should receive training on their relations with refugee and migrant workers in order to promote peaceful relations in the workplace.

Who represents refugees?

Even while there have been many meetings dealing with the employment of refugees, as outlined above, a core partner is missing from these debates – the refugees and migrants themselves. Unfortunately there are not many channels through which they can associate and represent themselves. Refugees have strong internal social networks and they use social media effectively to cement their communities. In Turkey there are new initiatives of Syrian businesspeople organising associations and representing themselves. But for the majority of refugees and migrants, particularly non-businesspeople, there is no such opportunity.

Most NGOs supporting refugees are largely associations of experts defending certain policy agendas as well as providing services for refugees. Most of the ongoing projects they have been providing are generally one-sided services which do not necessarily empower refugees nor assist them to represent themselves. The main actor representing workers is the trade union movement; however, apart from some trade union confederations in Europe, they do not appear to be overly motivated to organise and represent refugees and migrant workers. As there is a sectoral collective agreement in Jordan, it is still questionable whether workers there enjoy freedom of association, or whether Syrian refugees can represent themselves within the existing union structure; and in Turkey, Turkish trade unions do not mobilise refugee workers.

Trade unions, NGOs and multi-stakeholder initiatives may act in concert with refugee social networks to raise awareness, empower refugees and encourage them to organise and represent themselves in the workplace, but refugees and migrants should also find a way to represent themselves in the very policy making processes which deal with their lives and futures. It is clear that without the proper representation and participation of refugees and migrants in these debates and policy making processes, solutions to the problem of providing decent working conditions for refugee and migrant workers will remain lacking.

Notes

1For more information read my recent IMI working paper ‘How do Syrian refugee workers challenge supply chain management in the Turkish garment industry?’

IMI does not have an institutional view and does not aim to present one. The views expressed in this blog are those of individual authors.

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