Syrians Working in Turkey: No Rights, No Legal Protection

An Economist Accuses Turkish Business Owners of Exploiting Syrian Workers
Syrian workers want to improve their working conditions in Turkey. (Reuters)

The Syrian refugees in Turkey, particularly the workers, were planning a week-long strike earlier in September. The strike aimed to improve the situation of Syrian workers in a country with over three and a half million Syrian refugees. But what happened before this strike was called off for those who fled the war that has ravaged their country for more than a decade?

The idea for the strike originated with a Syrian businessman who resides in Turkey and holds Turkish nationality.  This plan was in furtherance of his opposition to the killing of a number of Syrians in recent attacks by Turkish extremists, as well as to respond to the call by right-wing parties for the expulsion of Syrian refugees from the Turkish territories and the withdrawal of temporary residence cards from them.  However, Turkish security authorities quickly moved and detained businessman Abdullah Al-Homsi last week in the Turkish city of Istanbul.

In addition to his call for Syrian workers to strike for their rights, Al-Homsi launched a scathing attack on Ümit Özdağ, the leader of Turkey's right-wing extremist Victory party, who constantly demands the expulsion of Syrian refugees from Turkey, blaming the majority of the country's economic problems on the Syrian presence. So far, Turkish authorities have not released the Syrian businessman, who also opposes Syrian regime President Bashar al-Assad. According to information obtained by Majalla from Turkish and Syrian sources, Al-Homsi did not attack the Turkish government, but only launched a stinging attack on the leader of the right-wing Victory party.

Syrian refugee boys work at a small textile factory in Gaziantep, where they are employed by a 30-year-old Turk who gave his name as Selim, in Turkey, May 16, 2016. Picture taken May 16, 2016. REUTERS/Umit

Representatives Withdrew Their Support

Despite the fact that thousands of Syrian workers were preparing to go on strike in the Turkish establishments, institutions, and factories where they work, calls for a boycott of the strike contributed to its failure to take place, particularly with the entry of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood group and their statement opposing the scheduled strike. Furthermore, prominent Syrian opposition figures, including well-known representatives like Abdul Hakim Quotaifan, have declined to support the idea of a workers' strike, despite having previously stated their full support for this movement.

Employers Take Advantage of Refugees

In this context, a well-known Turkish economic expert Khairy Kozanoglu emphasized that: "Whether Syrian workers strike or not, this does not negate or conflict with their need to obtain their full rights."

"The calls for this strike came as a reaction to the trends and proposals of the leader of the far-right Victory Party, who calls for the deportation of Syrians," the Turkish economist told Majalla, "but what happened was that the strike did not take place against the background of the intervention of Turkish-backed groups in the line of this crisis."

"Whatever the reasons for Syrian workers' withdrawal from work, they and all migrant workers must have the right to work and strike, especially since we all know that Syrians work at low wages and without any social security, and this is what employers exploit, particularly in the country's southeastern regions where there is a large presence of Syrian refugees," he added.

Government agencies, according to the economic analyst, do not provide periodic reports or accurate information about the reality of Syrian workers in Turkey.

Differences stances on the Strike

Majalla spoke with dozens of Syrian workers in various Turkish cities, the overwhelming majority of whom opposed the strike. "My personal stance on the strike has nothing to do with my political positions, but my family will starve if I don't work," one of them told Majalla.

He continued: "How will I provide for my family's daily needs if I stop working and who will compensate me if my employer fires me from the factory where I currently work?"

Although this worker opposes strikes, he emphasizes that "confronting hate speech in Turkey is a necessary step," adding that "I could have gone on strike now, if I had the means to secure my daily life."

"I work for eight hours a day, and on some days I work for ten hours, so that I can pay the rent and secure the rest of my living costs, especially now that living costs have become more expensive," he continued.

Another refugee working in a sewing workshop in Istanbul confirmed in an interview with Majalla: "The strike might have contributed to changing some of our conditions if all the workers agreed to stop working for at least a week." He added  that: "The owners of Turkish establishments want to hire Syrians because they work at low wages and without social guarantees from the Ministry of Labor."

He also urged international organizations concerned with workers' rights to intervene to improve their working conditions and emphasize the importance of granting them work permits that guarantee them end-of-service compensation and health care if they are injured during their work.

People protest the detention of businessman Abdullah Al-Homsi in the Turkish city of Istanbul.

No Compensation for Work-Related Injuries

Furthermore, another Syrian worker who was injured at work revealed that he was unable to seek financial compensation, despite the fact that he was unable to work later on due to an injury that forced him to walk with crutches after a traffic accident on his way to work.

"The bus of the lab where I work collided with another bus and as a result I was seriously injured," he said of what happened to him.

"My Turkish colleagues received their compensation," he explained to Majalla, "but I was unable to claim any compensation with the courts because I do not have a work permit, which disqualifies me from filing a lawsuit in the first place."

Turkish Law Restricts Numbers of Syrian Workers

According to the testimonies of Syrian workers and many Turkish unions, including the Confederation of Revolutionary Trade Unions of Turkey, known in Turkish as DISK, which is Turkey's oldest trade union federation, Turkish law allows the employment of one Syrian worker for every ten Turkish workers.

According to a Syrian worker in Istanbul: "This law is not applied literally, as Syrian workers in factories, sewing and embroidery workshops are the majority, together with some refugees of other nationalities, compared to the number of Turkish workers."

"Businessmen have for years preferred to hire Syrians because our presence in these facilities relieves them of the burden of paying the standard salaries.  Syrian wages are low compared to Turkish worker wages, and they do not pay taxes for our work because we are not registered with the Ministry of Labor," he added.

According to statistics provided by Turkish government agencies as well as international organizations dealing with labor and refugee issues, approximately 900,000 Syrian refugees are working in Turkey, with only about 70,000 of them having work permits. This figure excludes minor workers under the age of 18.

According to the International Labor Organization, which is headquartered in Geneva, 90 percent of Syrians work in Turkey without work permits, which the organization describes as a "problem" that Turkey must resolve.

No Choice for Syrian Refugees

Another Syrian worker told Majalla that he planned to use Turkey as a transit country to get to Europe, but what happened was the opposite of what he expected: "Turkey was just a transit country for me. I entered it about two years ago with the intention of going to Europe, but I was duped by a smuggler, who vanished after I paid him the 5,000 euros I had brought with me from Syria."

"Falling into the trap of fraud, I was forced to stay in Turkey, and thus work here without any guarantees or conditions protecting me," he continued, noting that: "I can't recover the money I lost in the fraud, especially with the Turkish lira's decline, which means I'll have to work for a long time or be deported to Syria because I don't have a residence permit inside Turkish territory."

According to a plan revealed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan about three months ago, Turkey intends to deport more than one million Syrian refugees by mid-2023, but he did not provide any details about the mechanism for implementation or the Syrian areas to which the refugees will be returned.

Since Ankara announced its intention to deport more than one million Syrian refugees out of a total population of over three and a half million, hundreds of Syrian refugees have attempted to cross the borders between Turkey-Greece, and Turkey-Bulgaria in an attempt to reach a European country that will provide them with a better living.

According to a source in DISK, the majority of Syrian workers are attempting to accumulate money in order to leave Turkey illegally for Greece and Bulgaria.  In addition to its high financial cost, it is a physically arduous journey insofar as it requires walking for several days in the forests and through the passes between the mountains.

According to a plan revealed by Turkish President, Turkey intends to deport more than one million Syrian refugees by mid-2023. (Reuters)

Despite having ratified the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol relating to the status of refugees, Turkey does not grant Syrians the "right of asylum," preventing them from legally entering the labor market. Instead, it has limited the geographical locations to European countries only as being countries from which refugees may enter.

As a result, Turkish authorities were content to grant Syrian refugees a temporary residence card known as "Kimlik" in Turkish, without providing them with travel documents that would allow them to enter and exit Turkey or enter the labor market legally.

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