Refugees in the Fashion Industry. An op-ed by Melissa Chaplin

Refugees in the Fashion Industry. An op-ed by Melissa Chaplin

It was October 2016 when a BBC Panorama investigation uncovered Syrian refugee children working in garment factories in Turkey, for high-street brands such as Marks and Spencer and ASOS. The documentary showed that there were children as young as 13 being forced to work 60 hour weeks for as little as 70p an hour.

As a group, refugees are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, as Peter McAlister, head of the Ethical Trading Initiative, has pointed out. They are often unfamiliar with the legal system of their host country and desperate for work, they may not speak the language of the country in which they find themselves and are likely to experience social isolation. Often, stringent laws surrounding what work they are able to do while seeking asylum can leave them unsupported and taking under the table jobs where they have no recourse if they are abused. Whilst modern day slavery is an issue throughout the fashion industry, the specific needs of refugees mean that it is worth considering those who find themselves in the garment industry as a unique group. Research repeatedly supports the notion that in order to integrate into their host countries, refugees need access to decent jobs and appropriate training, with the UNHCR highlighting this as a key area for improvement. 

Turkey, which is the third largest exporter of garments and leather goods to Europe (eclipsed only by Bangladesh and China), has seen an influx of over three and a half million  Syrian refugees – a number that has almost doubled since the Panorama investigation.  Since the media furore surrounding the discovery of children working in some of the factories in 2016, the mainstream media has largely been quiet on this issue.  So, what is the situation as it stands today, and what more needs to be done?

Later reports on the ongoing issue of refugee exploitation in the fashion industry showed some improvement from 2016, but continued to look bleak.  In November 2017, the director of the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) Phil Bloomer, commented that “Some high street fashion brands...have made progress in protecting workers, but too many, like Aldi, Asda and Topshop, are lagging way behind.” The International Labour Organisation (ILO) is currently engaged in a five-year plan (2017-2021) seeking to improve working conditions for refugees in the textile and garment industries in Turkey. This involves providing training, supporting job creation, and developing labour governance in this area.  As a recent report from the ILO concluded however, modern day slavery is the biggest single crime industry in the world, and refugees are particularly likely to fall victim to it. 

The best way forward for fashion is in nurturing the talent that many refugees can bring to the industry. As María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, president of the UN General Assembly, stated: “The benefits of migration outweigh the challenges.” In November 2018, the Ministry of Labour in Jordan, another country which has had a large influx of refugees, ruled that refugees could set up home businesses in skilled work such as tailoring and handicrafts. The UNHCR acknowledges this as a good way to enable refugees to earn a decent living.  

Some brands are working hard to employ refugees in a way that is ethical, and views them as an asset rather than a burden. There are many refugees who are artisan craftspeople, who bring important skills to the industry.  Beulah London are a couture brand who support women who have been trafficked in finding employment.

Birdsong London work with Heba, a charity that supports vulnerable migrant and refugee women through sewing and pattern cutting lessons.  Birdsong pays the London living wage, and truly appreciates the abilities of their seamstresses.  The Re:New Project provides sewing training to refugee women, then employs the graduates of the class. Blue Meets Blue is a luxury fashion brand emphasising the capacity of refugee designers and craftspeople to create beautiful clothes.  In Chicago, Blue Tin Production is an initiative set up by activist Hoda Katebi seeking to empower refugee women through decent jobs manufacturing garments.  They are expected to launch mid-2019. 

While there remains a long way to go for the fashion industry to effectively support refugees and to eradicate endemic exploitation, it is promising that some progress has been made.  The example of brands striving to treat refugee workers with compassion only underscores how the status quo of mistreatment and abuse by some companies is unacceptable. As consumers, we must demand more equitable treatment for refugees, and ensure that this issue is not allowed to slip off the radar.   

Melissa Chaplin is a freelance fashion journalist specialising in ethical and sustainable fashion.  She is also a PhD researcher in intercultural communication at Durham University.  She can be found on Instagram at @melissaraechaplin.

Image: ‘Clothes in the Beulah London shop’ by Melissa Chaplin


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