image: Topshop

image: Topshop

Some of Europe’s biggest apparel retailers are systematically failing to eradicate the abuse of Syrian refugees working in Turkish garment factories from their supply chains, according to the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (“BHRRC”). The London-based organization – which tracks the human rights policy and performance of over 7000 companies in over 180 countries – has called attention to a handful of the companies that it deems to be some of the “worst offenders,” including Topshop and Wal-Mart-owned Asda, for failing ensure that the workplaces of its suppliers are devoid of egregiously low wages, discrimination and poor conditions in terms of safety.

Refugees in the Supply Chain

In a new report, entitled, “What’s changed for Syrian refugees in Turkish garment supply chains?,” BHRRC surveyed 37 major European brands with suppliers in Turkey, where garment manufacturing and exports have created a multi-billion dollar industry. Specifically, the BHRRC focused on the policies and practices that are being undertaken by manufacturers to address and eliminate the abuse of factory workers, including Syrian refugees.

Of the more than 3 million Syrians who have fled to Turkey to escape the deadly civil war that erupted in 2011, about 650,000 are said to be working in Turkey, many in the garment industry, according to BHRRC. 

According to BHRRC, “The garment industry in Turkey is complex and exploitative conditions are too common, and since 2015, reports and investigations have exposed poor wages, discrimination, and child labor by Syrian refugees working in the Turkish garment industry,” despite Turkish law, which bans children under 15 from working. 

It is against this background that BHRRC’s executive director, Phil Bloomer says, “Some high-street fashion brands have made progress in protecting workers are lagging way behind.”

BHRRC – which complied its report based on information supplied by the brands at issue – says that Topshop and Wal-Mart-owned Asda have failed to take “sufficient action against exploitation.” New Look, Next, ASOS, SuperDry, H&M, and Inditex’s various brands, including Zara, on the other hand, provided information with what BHRRC says includes “evidence of action to stop exploitation of refugees.”

In numerous categories, Hugo Boss, Puma, Nike, and Burberry ranked as companies that “should seek to improve [their] efforts.”  

How Much Weight Should We Give These Reports?

As we told you last month, many sustainability-centric and supply chain-focused rankings should be evaluated carefully given how the information for such reports is compiled. These rankings tend to be based entirely on publicly available information and information provided specifically by brands. This is problematic for a few reasons. Primarily, given that the information is provided by the companies, themselves, there is a lot of leeway for brands to skew the narrative in their favor.

For its report, BHRRC gathered information regarding brands’ supply chain efforts by providing the brands with a questionnaire to complete. Such questions included: “Does your company have a policy specifically prohibiting discrimination & exploitative practices against Syrian refugees?  How is this policy communicated to suppliers in Turkey?,” “How does your company address the possibility of undeclared subcontracting in its supply chain?,” and “Has your company identified supplier factories employing Syrian child refugees in the last year? If the answer is yes please state how many factories, if possible,” among others.

As noted by Elizabeth Winkler, writing for the Washington Post, in the absence of a uniform standard for sustainability and/or transparency efforts, including surrounding human rights abuses, “each company can assess its ethical record independently and is free to give themselves all the accolades they like.”

That, according to Winkler, “rewards clever marketing and storytelling, not actual monitoring and accountability — and leaves consumers without any way of discerning between brands that meet high labor standards and those that only talk about it.”

This is worth keeping in mind when evaluating this ranking and other such reports.