“My husband used to say: ‘You stay home and cook for us. By God, I will give you 25 lira. It is haram for you to be gone from morning to evening, and to say you are working.’ I told him what we would do. We would ask the boss to pay us an extra lira. At first she didn’t, but in the end, she gave us two! It used to be five lira, and then it became seven.”
Dima laughed as she explained how she started working in a textile factory in Istanbul. It was hard, working long hours for little money, without any guarantees. She did not have a contract or health insurance. She was paid by the number of items she cleaned of excess thread: five lira for every 100 items. She worked about 12 hours a day to make 25 lira or 2.5 euro.
As part of my academic research, I conducted interviews with Syrian women working in textile factories in and around Istanbul. That is how I met Dima. It is well known that, with the Baath regime declaring war on Syrian society following the 2011 demonstrations, many women fled the country. Many ended up in Turkey.
At first, they believed they would be granted a “temporary asylum” before returning home a few months later. Yet, as the war dragged on, they realized there would be no imminent return to Syria. So, they started looking for a job and a place to settle in Turkey.
Istanbul is an attractive city for refugees looking for work. There are many companies, especially in the textile sector. For women, however, the situation is different than for men. To work in the textile factories and workshops of Istanbul was not the women’s original intention. They found themselves forced to work. Women with children, divorced or widowed. Or with a husband unable to work due to illness or war injuries. Or a husband working for a very low salary.
Most women had never worked before, as cultural and religious beliefs in Syria discouraged them from working. This further complicated the challenge of looking for a job in Turkey. Syrian women suffer discrimination in terms of treatment and income, when compared to Turkish workers. They suffer more than Syrian men. This is evident looking at their income. They receive a very low salary, even when compared to minors.
In addition, in their interviews they frequently report incidents, which indicate they are weak, unable to defend themselves, and vulnerable to assault. Stories of failing to get paid and sexual harassment frequently pop up.
A Positive Image
Most textile factories in Istanbul are small or medium sized. This helps resolve companies’ problem of requiring cheap production on the one hand and a positive image in terms of workers’ rights on the other. Companies usually enter agreements with large factories to fulfil orders and deliver goods within a certain period.
The latter, in turn, sign subcontracts with medium or small companies in or around Istanbul. Large factories tend to follow legal requirements: they offer contracts and demand work shifts of up to 10 a day, while small and medium-sized firms offer no contracts and require work shifts of 12 hours or more.
As a rule, workers are prohibited from talking to each other and using headphones or mobile phones while working. They are allowed a 15-minute break for breakfast, an hour for lunch, and another 15 minutes in the afternoon. In most cases, lunch is at their own expense. They are constantly monitored.
“We are not allowed to do anything,” said Reem. “We can’t move. We can’t even talk to the person next to us. It’s like sitting for an exam at university. There is no difference. If the boss calls you, you listen. And if you don’t, he calls you names and humiliates you. Sometimes, when you get tired and your mind takes a rest for a few seconds, they immediately call: ‘Why did you stop?’ Then you have to hurry, and work faster.”
Like a Daughter
The smaller workshops are usually founded by former workers, family members and friends. They are more flexible in the ways they manage employees, which helps to create a better atmosphere, with less stress, a better relation with managers, and less discrimination in treatment and salary.
In this context social networks play an important role. Often one finds several workers from the same Syrian city in these workshops. This creates a friendlier atmosphere, which has led many Syrians to look for this working environment before anything else.
“There [in big factories] you are just a piece of a machine, here [in small workshops],” one of the interviewees explained. “Even though it is not safe to work all year round, you feel you are among people, who understand you and with whom you share similar things.”
In my research I committed myself to not conduct interviews with workers in the workplace to prevent problems. The aim was for employers not to find out their employees were talking about their suffering. However, to my surprise, in many cases the workers showed up at the interview with their boss.
This was mainly the case with those who work in small workshops. They would joke and laugh among themselves, as if they were friends. They explained that they not only worked together but often also shared housing.
This prompted me to pause and reflect on the importance of spaces outside the power relation at work to better understand the lives of these textile workers. For example, this is how Samar explained her relationship with the owner of a workshop, where she works for up to 7 hours a day and not more than 50 euro a month.
“I do not feel that she treats me as being either Syrian or Turkish,” Samar said. “She likes me. She calls me in the morning and asks: ‘Where are you? I am waiting for you to drink Nescafe together.’ She prepares lunch too. I eat with her. She treats me as if I were her daughter. She says: ‘I have 4 daughters, and you are my fifth’. She is very old. She is 70.”
Many Syrian women prefer to work in small workshops, especially if they are close to home. In this way, women avoid the strict laws governing large factories, which often appear as unfamiliar and unsafe to them, and where they are not allowed to even answer the phone while working.
Finding work in a small workshop near home makes Syrian women workers feel safer. It also gives them a sense of being closer to their family. If they can, they will even agree with the workshop owner to get some time to go home, check on the children, prepare lunch, and return to work. Such agreements often do have repercussions on working conditions, as they never come for free. The greater the flexibility, the lower the salary.
If possible, many women choose to work from home. In that case, they do not get paid per day, week or month, but by the number of items they produce. In general, they work in the final stages of production, such as cutting threads, adding detail for decoration, and packaging. Working this way, 7 hours a day from home, produces an average salary of some 50 euro a month. Such low wages are rarely found even among minors. And they are never that low for men.
Despite knowing how harsh their working conditions are, feelings of guilt are common in the mothers forced to leave their children to work in factories and workshops.
“I brought them [my children] here [Turkey] to give them a better future,” one of them said. ”However, we found that it is them who provide us with medicine, food, and drinks. We [the parents] should provide for them. but they are providing for us. I’m praying to God that one day they will call me to tell me we can travel. So my sons will be able to live safely. Over there they will build their lives. They will go to school safely. They will practise their hobbies safely. I am responsible for their lives. And I hope they will forgive me.”
Unlike Syrian refugee women in Western countries, women working in the Turkish textile industry lack support and protection, for which the Turkish state should be responsible. They are governed by laws that complicate their role in the labour market on the one hand and taking care of their families at home on the other. This situation forces them to accept the worst working conditions, which Syrian men normally do not accept. Many women feel guilty not being able to provide their children with what they need, which makes them vulnerable to exploitation.
“What would you do if you won 7,000 euro in the lottery?” I asked the interviewees, as part of my research. This helps to compare the priorities and needs of different groups. Everyone shares the same concerns about migration, but in the case of women, children overwhelmingly are the biggest concern.
“I will pay my debts and take my children to a market to buy them all they want,” said Samar, upon which she started crying uncontrollably and I, the researcher, stopped the interview.
This report was completed with funding from Horizon 2020, the European Union research and innovation program, and Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions under Grant 841144 (Project FMGESI).