Since 2014, Syrians who registered with the Turkish authorities have been given temporary protection status, which granted them access to free health services, but not the right to work. Many nevertheless worked in the informal economy for way below the minimum wage. New legislation was introduced in 2016 that, on paper at least, allows Syrians to apply for work permits. But the agricultural and animal-rearing sectors are exempt from needing permits. The result is that Syrian farm labourers are not covered by basic labour laws and are left at the mercy of unscrupulous employers.
According to a new study by the Ankara-based Development Workshop, Syrian agricultural labourers in Adana work an average of 11 hours a day for 38 Turkish lira ($11), about two thirds what Turks earn for the same work.
The study, which was funded by the EU’s emergency aid department, ECHO, found Syrian workers often had to wait several months after bringing in a harvest before getting paid. Payments were usually made through elciler, or “handlers”. These intermediaries act as employment agents and also organise transportation and living arrangements. In exchange for their services, elciler, who are mostly Kurds displaced from southeastern Turkey in the 1990s, take 10 percent of the workers’ wages. On top of paying elciler, migrant workers often have to pay rent for the plots of land they occupy, along with water and electricity bills.
97 percent of the farm workers’ children were not attending school and nearly half were working in the fields. As a result, illiteracy rates have jumped, with 60 percent of Syrian children aged between six and 14 saying they could neither read nor write. For the sake of added protection, underage marriage is common. Nearly 24 percent of 15- to 17-year-old girls interviewed for the Development Workshop report were found to be married. While Syrians are eligible for free medical care, they can only access such services in the district where they are registered. As seasonal workers tend to move around, following various harvest seasons, they may have to travel several hundred kilometres to receive basic medical care.
Most end up living a hand-to-mouth existence, said Saniye Dedeoğlu, a professor of social policy at Mugla University who contributed to the report. “It doesn’t matter how much it’s paid, they know in agriculture there is work,” said Dedeoğlu. “In families with 10 kids, maybe five working kids and working parents, [they] can make enough money to survive.” The situation is unlikely to change in the near future, said Dedeoğlu. “Syrians are here to stay, especially the young generation,” he told IRIN. “People are hanging on to life, without any support as these tent populations show. They are trying to find jobs. They are trying to make ends meet in these appalling living conditions, and there is little to no schooling.”