Mohammed Zaghnoun, a refugee from Aleppo, arrived in Turkey two years ago and considers himself relatively fortunate. He earns 1,500 Turkish liras ($436) a month, 200 liras ($58) above the minimum wage, in a furniture factory in Ankara. Many of the 3 million Syrians in Turkey don’t even have a job.
But Zaghnoun works 12 hours a day, five and a half days a week — one-and-a-half times as long as the legal working week. The Turk working next to him, doing the same job, earns 47% more and receives health insurance. In short, Zaghnoun is horrendously exploited.
He is only one of tens of thousands of refugee workers who drove the Turkish Confederation of Employer Associations (TISK) to urge the government to give Syrians the right to work. The TISK said the lack of regulations meant that companies using Syrians as cheap labor have an unfair advantage over other businesses.
In January, the Turkish government passed a regulation allowing Syrians to obtain work permits, but under a quota to prevent Syrians from displacing Turks. Only 10% of a company's staff can be Syrian.
The move was praised by academics and nongovernmental organizations as a progressive step for a country that is hosting more refugees than any other in the world.
“Let’s document what’s happening here in Turkey,” said Nicholas Grisewood from the International Labor Organization during the “Decent Work for All” conference in Ankara that Al-Monitor attended in September. “You are learning lessons that will be markers for the rest of the world,” he said. Turkey was praised as pioneering the integration of refugees into its economy.
However, by late October, only 10,000 Syrians had acquired work permits, a source close to the Labor Ministry told Al-Monitor. Nobody knows how many Syrians work in Turkey. Estimates range from 600,000 to more than 1 million.
If the 600,000 figure is accurate, then 10,000 permits means that in 10 months after the regulation was introduced, fewer than 2% of Syrians are working legally.
“You can’t call that integration,” Elif Ozmenek Carmikli, a political scientist who is writing a book on migrants in Turkey, told Al-Monitor.
Work permits matter. They are the key to getting the minimum wage, health benefits and the right to sue for nonpayment.
Pinar Odabasi, project coordinator for the Turkish aid organization International Middle East Peace Research Center Humanitarian (IMPR), told Al-Monitor that every day a Syrian comes to their offices to say his employer has not paid him. IMPR has to tell the Syrians that unless they have a work permit, they cannot go to court because they were working illegally in the first place.
A major flaw in the new regulation is that a Syrian cannot apply for a work permit. Only his employer can apply on his behalf. If an employer does apply, he must pay 558 liras ($162) for the permit and he becomes obliged to pay the minimum wage of 1,300 liras ($378) as well as 347 liras ($100) every month for health insurance and social security. In addition, the employer has to show that he doesn’t exceed the 10% quota allowed for Syrian workers.
With such a burden, it is not surprising that few employers have applied for the permits. Hassan, a Syrian who declined to give his surname, told Al-Monitor he worked for 18 months in a large store, earning half of what the Turkish employees did. “If I had asked my employer to get me a work permit, he would have kicked me out,” he said.
Employers who hire Syrians without permits can be fined 6,000 liras ($1,745) per illegal worker, but enforcement is weak. Zaghnoun, the furniture maker, said that whenever government inspectors come to his factory, his boss tells him to go outside for two hours.
The TISK found that local authorities were “remarkably hesitant” to crack down on employers hiring Syrians illegally. Town councils told the TISK the Syrians needed jobs.
Labor Ministry official Zeynep Daldal told the “Decent Work for All” conference that few work permits had been issued because few applications had been received. “This will be resolved by raising awareness,” Daldal said.
There is a lack of awareness — by both Syrians and employers. Many of the Syrians interviewed by Al-Monitor did not know they were eligible for work permits as well as health insurance and social security. “Some employers don’t know they have to get work permits for their Syrians,” said Odabasi. Employers ask her, “These Syrians are foreigners. Why do we need to give them health insurance and social security?”
IMPR runs campaigns to inform companies of the Syrians’ rights. Odabasi said that when she tells employers they are legally obliged to provide health insurance and social security for their Syrians, “They’re not happy.”
This is where Daldal’s “raising awareness” misses the point. Many employers are well-aware of what work permits entail, and that is exactly why they’re avoiding them.
“Most employers seek Syrians because they are cheaper than Turks,” said Husam Mashaan, a carpenter from the central Syrian city of Hama. “With Syrian workers, the employer doesn’t have to pay health insurance and social security. The Syrians are prepared to work without it.”
No employer would tell Al-Monitor that he hired Syrians illegally. But Hakan Ataman of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly said, “Most employers don’t want to apply for work permits because of the obligation to pay the minimum wage and benefits.”
Mashaan earns 1,600 liras ($465) a month, but he works 10 hours a day, six days a week. He is one of three workers. The other two are Turks, so his employer is flouting the 10% quota.
The government imposed the quota to have some control over where the Syrians sought work. But when 98% of Syrian workers are unregistered, the state has no control. Where Syrians live and work is determined by market forces.
And that can have political implications. The day after the July coup attempt, Turks rioted in the Onder district of Ankara, attacking Syrian shops.
Turkey’s economy is in decline. Unemployment has reached 11.3% and Syrians are a convenient scapegoat. “Even if Syrians have no effect on unemployment, Turkish citizens say the unemployment is because of the Syrian refugees,” said Ataman of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly.
In such a climate, the Syrians have become co-victims with the Turks of a general malaise and lack of governmental oversight.
“Employers cannot afford health insurance and social security. Even for their Turkish workers, they don’t want to pay it,” said Odabasi. ”There are Turkish workers who are not getting the minimum wage, or who are getting the minimum wage but with no health insurance and social security.”
Asked if anything could be done to stop the exploitation of Syrians, Carmikli said, “Society doesn’t see it as exploitation. Nobody says to the employers ‘What are you doing to these people? You’re exploiting them.’ No, instead they’re saying, ‘It’s good that you’re hiring them. You’re helping them out.’ It’s a totally different mindset that we’re facing here.”
The government takes the same view, she said. “Local officials see it as something positive that the Syrians are working, and they are not alarmed about the fact that the Syrians are being exploited.”
The Labor Ministry refused to comment on the issue. Al-Monitor made repeated requests for an interview, including a letter to the ministry’s undersecretary that quoted what Syrian workers were saying.
But despite the hardships, most Syrians are thankful for their new life in Turkey. Mashaan, the carpenter, said his wife had given birth twice in Turkey and each time the state had paid the hospital expenses. “I’m happy and satisfied in Turkey,” he said.
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