“When a bomb exploded close to my school, my father told me that I would have to leave and go to Turkey,” he said. “Crossing the border wasn’t really hard. There were many refugees fleeing Syria at that time, and I was one of them.”
Once in Istanbul, he was reunited with his older brother who helped him find a job in a shoemaking workshop.
Ahmed found himself working long hours in harsh conditions gluing various shoe components together. Four years on, he still works 14 hours a day, six days a week, his fingers now bent out of shape by the continuous use of scissors.
“I have to endure all this because I don’t want to starve,” he said. “When I take a day off, all I do is sleep, to get some rest.”
Tens of thousands of unregistered refugee workers, including children, are employed in workshops and industrial areas of Turkish cities. These small workshops often act as subcontractors for larger businesses in the textile, garment and shoe sector, worth around 40 billion US dollars a year.
Hiring refugees is cheaper than hiring Turks, with children the cheapest of all.
Two children aged 10 and 12 work alongside Ahmed in the dark, airless workshop. He said that the fumes from the glue made these children dizzy and that their speech had become almost unintelligible.
“Their families brought them to learn the trade,” said Ahmed. “Their job is to glue different pieces together and they earn 25-30 euros a week.”
Ahmed’s own fortunes have improved since he arrived at the workshop. He has been reunited with his mother and other siblings who joined him in Turkey and has been promoted to a far more skilled position. He now earns 400 euro per month, well above the Turkey’s minimum wage of 343 euro – although according to the country’s biggest trade union confederation Türk-İş, the monthly living costs of a single worker in Turkey are about 428 euro.
According to the country’s labour law, Ahmed falls into the category of a young worker. This sets out certain conditions, including for eight hours of work to be followed by 14 hours of rest. Those up to the age of 17 can only work 40 hours a week and are not allowed to do heavy or dangerous work.
Penalties, however, are far from onerous. Although children under the age of 15 are not allowed to work at all, those found employing them are liable to pay a fine of about 320 euros.
Ahmed said that he was unaware of the existence of such regulations. In any case, he continued, they were irrelevant to him as, like his mother and siblings, he was unregistered.
“When I was in Syria, I wanted to be a doctor, and that seemed possible,” he said. “Now, I dream of having my own workshop, although I know that my chances are slim.”
There are more than 2.5 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey. Yıldırım Şahin, vice chairman of the Brotherhood of People Association, an NGO helping Syrian refugees in Turkey, said that children were particularly vulnerable to exploitation.
“First, very often adults in their families can’t work. Unlike their older relatives, children learn Turkish quickly, and that helps them find work,” he said, adding that “the fact that some of the adults lost their health and were crippled during the attacks in Syria makes child labour in some families a necessity”.
This was also part of a wider picture of exclusion, he continued.
“In many houses where Syrians live, there is no running water, so children can’t take a bath and therefore smell. In school, no one wants to sit near them and other children make jokes about them,” Şahin said. “Some of child refugees would rather go to work than put up with humiliation in school.”
In some families, there is simply not enough money to send all the children to school. Hamid (not his real name), 13, is employed in another shoe workshop and said that he had begun working shortly after he had arrived in Turkey with his family three years ago.
“I attended school when I was in Syria, but when we came here, I started to work. I have younger siblings – I am working so they can go to school,” he said, adding that he was now his family’s main breadwinner.
Nilay Gökkaya Akyol, an occupational health and safety specialist at the Ministry of labour and social security, carried out a study last year of nine workshops across Ankara.
He said that dangerous chemicals were routinely used and risked causing headaches, dizziness and nausea, as well as irritation of the skin, eyes and nose.
“Prolonged exposure to these chemicals can lead to paralysis, and respiratory failure can cause death,” he said.
Another occupational specialist, Ayhan Aydoğan, said that the glue used at shoe workshops was particularly strong, and potentially so dangerous that workers under 18 were banned from working with it.
“These jobs are dangerous even for the adults. Workers must be wearing masks and workshops must have proper ventilation,” he said. Aydoğan said that although he had himself previously visited such workshops, he had never seen anyone working with a mask. None of the premises were properly ventilated, either, he concluded.
This lack of ventilation can make the small workshops feel suffocating. In another studio, 15-year-old Abdullah (not his real name) said that he had long suffered health problems from working with glue all day.
“I’ve been doing this job for four years,” he said. “I always have headaches, but I can not go to a hospital because I do not have an ID.”
Abdullah said that he had few other options.
“If it wasn’t for this job, I’d be unemployed. I have to work in order to survive,” he said.
With the shoe export sector such an important part of the export market, scrutiny has also fallen on major manufacturers subcontracting to unregulated workshops. Although a number of major Turkish shoe brands declined requests for an interview, the manager of one well-known brand, Greyder, said that while the firm did outsource some production, they strictly adhered to Turkish labour laws.
“We demand the same high standards from the workshops and factories whose work we outsource,” said Özlem Karabulut, adding that Greyder was currently making big investments to improve working conditions in its own factories.
Karabulut said that the company would cut all ties with any workshop found to be using child labour, but said that Greyder’s inspectors have never reported such cases.
Unsurprisingly, Turkish people are extremely reluctant to work in sweatshop conditions.
For now, it seems that this flood of unregistered labour is helping prop up a whole industry.
“No one wants to do this job if they have another option,” said a workshop owner, who asked to remain anonymous. “No one wants their children to work in these conditions. Honestly, we had been short-staffed before Syrians arrived. They saved this trade.”