Syrian refugee children are working in Turkish clothes factories which provide garments for British shoppers, a TV documentary has claimed.
An investigation into factories in Turkey found children had been working on clothes for companies including Marks and Spencer and the online retailer ASOS.
One factory, which boasted of making clothes for NEXT, employed Turkish children and Syrian refugees, while the BBC's Panorama team also discovered refugees working illegally on Zara and Mango jeans. Many claimed they were working for little more than a pound an hour – well below the Turkish minimum wage and were employed through a middleman who paid them in cash on the street. Meanwhile, most do not have work permits and many of them are working illegally in the garment industry.
All of the brands say they carefully monitor their supply chains in Turkey and that they do not tolerate the exploitation of refugees or children.
Marks and Spencer insisted that its own inspections haven’t found a single Syrian refugee working in its supply chain in Turkey - but the programme found seven Syrians working in one of the British retailer’s main factories.
The youngest worker was 15 years old and claimed he was working more than 12 hours a day ironing clothes before they were shipped to the UK.
One of the refugees told Panorama they were poorly treated at the factory. He said: “If anything happens to a Syrian, they will throw him away like a piece of cloth.”
Danielle McMullan, from the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, says the brands need to understand that they are responsible: “It’s not enough to say we didn’t know about this, it’s not our fault. They have a responsibility to monitor and to understand where their clothes are being made and what condition they are being made in.”
Panorama reporter Darragh MacIntyre spoke to dozens of Syrian workers who felt they were being exploited. He said: “They speak of pitiful wages and terrible working conditions. They know they are being exploited but they know they can do nothing about it.”
In one back-street workshop in Istanbul, the programme team found several Syrian children hard at work. They also discovered an ASOS sample in the office.
ASOS accepts its clothes were made in the factory, but says it is not an approved factory. The company has since inspected and found 11 Syrian adults and three Syrian children under 16 at work.
ASOS says the children will be financially supported so they can return to school and the adult refugees will be paid a wage until they are found legal work. A spokesperson for the company said: “We have implemented these remediation programmes despite the fact that this factory has nothing to do with ASOS.”
The investigation also discovered Syrian refugees working 12 hour days in a factory that was distressing jeans for Mango and Zara.
The refugees were involved in spraying hazardous chemicals to bleach the jeans, but most of the workers didn’t even have a basic face mask.
Mango says that the factory was working as a subcontractor without its knowledge. Its subsequent inspection didn’t find any Syrian workers and found “good conditions except for some personal safety measures”.
A spokesman for Marks and Spencer said the programme’s findings were “extremely serious” and “unacceptable to M&S.” It said it would offer permanent legal employment to any Syrians who were employed in the factory.
He said: “Ethical trading is fundamental to M&S. All of our suppliers are contractually required to comply with our Global Sourcing Principles, which cover what we expect and require of them and their treatment of workers. We do not tolerate such breaches of these Principles and we will do all we can to ensure that this does not happen again.”
Zara’s parent company, Inditex, says its factory inspections are a “highly effective way of monitoring and improving conditions”. It had already found significant non-compliance in an audit in June and had given the factory until December to make the necessary improvements.
In another Istanbul factory, Panorama found Syrian adults at work alongside Turkish children as young as ten.
The owner said he had been working for NEXT and showed the undercover team a set of NEXT pyjamas that he said the factory had helped produce.
NEXT says the pyjamas were actually made by another supplier and the pyjamas found by Panorama may have been a sample. It says samples circulate widely and that the presence of a sample in a factory does not mean it was made there.
The programme, Panorama - Undercover: The Refugees Who Make Our Clothes, will be shown on BBC One tonight at 8.30pm.