Thirteen-year-old Elif Küpeli was relieved, although not very happy, that the pepper harvest in Turkey’s southern Adana province had come to an end.
“Now, I’ll just be bored staying in the tent,” she said, half smiling, gazing at her feet.
Between last summer and January this year, Elif and her family would wake up before sunrise and spend all day picking kilos of peppers. For this they were paid 90 liras a day each.
The Küpeli family moved to Adana’s Mediterranean Karataş region in 2010 because of the poverty they faced at home in Şanlıurfa province, in Turkey’s south-east.
“What else can we do? We have to make money,” Elif said.
Like many of her friends, Elif said she missed going to school. But this would have likely been her final year of education anyway: even without the pandemic, she said, she was planning on dropping out soon to help her family earn money.
Elif’s story is common in the community of itinerant agricultural labourers she and her family belong to. Thousands of children like her live in the giant blue and white nylon tents pitched on the mud of the Çukurova Plain, one of Turkey’s major agricultural regions, and work in fields where summer temperatures can reach as high as 50 degrees.
Now, a new government initiative aims to ensure these children can enjoy basic rights such as education and secure housing. The project, largely funded by the EU and supported by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), claims to be Turkey’s largest ever push against child labour. With a 30 million euros budget, the ministry of family, labour and social services will lead a drive to provide children in communities of seasonal agricultural workers with educational materials and counselling, as well as clothing, food and hygiene kits. Their parents will be offered vocational training, while employers will be made aware of the law on child labour.
The families spoken to by Inside Turkey said that they welcomed the project, which is scheduled to run for more than three years, although they were not particularly hopeful it would lead to lasting change.
For the bosses, meanwhile, the use of seasonal labour was merely a fact of life.
“This is just the way things are here,” said Serhan Nasal, 47, a farm owner from Kadıköy village in Adana.
Nasal was born into a local family that owned citrus orchards and has employed seasonal labourers his whole life. He pays an intermediary, who gathers and pays workers. Both Nasal and his intermediary said they found the project naive.
“This was the situation when my grandfather was around; this is how it goes,” Nasal said.
According to a 2017 report from the Family and Social Services Ministry, wider economic factors push children into agricultural labour.
“Unemployment of parents and inadequate household income cause children to work,” the report stated. “Families whose income sources are scarce avoid sending their children to school and the families’ lack of education results in child labour.”
As Turkey’s economy struggles, long-term unemployment stands at 23.5 per cent for 2020, according to OECD data. While people with lower levels of education are hit hardest, for university graduates, the unemployment rate is still 14.2 per cent.
The Tecir family fled to Adana after they ran up debts of around 90,000 liras in Şanlıurfa. Kadri said that his 15-year-old son Ali had been doing well at school.
“He’s very smart. He’s great at maths,” Kadri continued.
But the shy teenager has now left school to earn money for the family, and said he didn’t know what profession interested him, or what his future might hold.
His 17-year-old sister Ayten said she was thinking of getting married to a neighbour. To get her father’s permission, the groom would have to pay the family around 60,000 liras.
For nine months, Adana production company Atom Film followed the lives of the workers for a documentary Mevsimlik Yaşamlar (Seasonal Lives). The directors, Ozan Sihay and Tufan Şimşekcan, told Inside Turkey that they were most concerned for the welfare of the girls.
“They work in the fields and the gardens, and also do the household chores in their tents. Taking care of laundry, the dishes, food, cleaning, and washing while also being an agricultural labourer is very difficult,” Şimşekcan said. “They’re in a fight to survive, and it has been this way for decades.”
Some children attend elementary school on top of their daily chores, but many do not access education. According to figures from the official statistics agency TURKSTAT, just under half of children who work to support the family attend school. The ILO defines child labour as work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity in a way that is harmful to their physical and mental development. A 2019 TURKSTAT survey showed that almost 720,000 children aged between 5 and 17 are engaged in some sort of economic activity, with around 30 per cent of these working in agriculture.
Top officials insist that Turkey is committed to protecting children’s rights.
On June 12, to mark World Day Against Child Labour, family and social services minister Zehra Zümrüt Selçuk said that Turkey’s efforts to eliminate child labour were working. According to the government, the child labour rate has more than halved in a decade, from 10.3 per cent in 1999 to 4.4 per cent in 2019.
“As we always say, the place of children is with their families and in school,” the minister said at the time. “We want our children to go to parks and play hide-and-seek.”
Turkey also supports the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and is a signatory to two ILO conventions on child labour, according to a statement by the ministry in 2017.
However, according to Ertan Karabıyık, secretary general of Development Workshop, an NGO that monitors conditions for seasonal agricultural workers, the state falls short.
“There’s no comprehensive law or regulation for the agricultural workforce,” Karabıyık said, explaining that unless a farm employed more than 50 people, they were not fully protected by labour laws.
“A majority of those working in the fields and gardens are informal workers, without security,” he said, adding that a draft law to protect people in these situations has been under discussion since the 1970s.
A further problem is that officials set very low standards. Hatay province in south-east Turkey recently announced a daily wage of 52 liras for agricultural labourers, which Karabıyık said would leave workers struggling to earn minimum wage even if they worked every day of the month.
“This is a violation of human rights,” he said. “If the provincial bar association and local NGOs don’t attend to this problem, who will? None of them said a word.”
Karabiyik added that his own family were migrants from Thessaloniki, the northern Greek city that was formerly part of the Ottoman Empire. Now in his fifties, Karabiyik himself worked as a child labourer in the western Turkish province of Aydın, picking figs.
“We had a helping hand there because my family was keen for me and my brother to study and become part of the middle class,” he said. “We were in the west [a relatively affluent part of Turkey], and had access to high-quality education nearby.”
Karabıyık said that while Kurds from Turkey’s south-eastern provinces had made up the majority of the workforce for several decades, refugees from Syria were now playing a major role. Currently, he estimated, Syrians account for around 65 per cent of the seasonal agricultural labourers in Adana.
Karabıyık was also sceptical about the new, internationally-funded project.
“Every country has its own complex structures that create the problem,” he explained, adding that Turkey needed a more integrated approach to the issue.
“Academia must do its part, lawyers must do their part, industry must do its part, the NGOs must attend to needs, parliament needs to create proper legal structures, the media should take on its proper role. Basically, everyone should take on their role for the solution,” he said.
Now, with the advance of the coronavirus pandemic, an escape route from poverty through education has become even more difficult for children who live in the tents of Adana. Schools are closed and they have no tablets, and no internet access – no means to pay the bills, or even an address to register them at.
Without an alternative, another generation waits its turn. Büşra and Dila, both aged ten, are considered too young to work in the fields right now. But in just over three years, when the government’s child labour project is scheduled to finish, their turn may yet come.
The names of children mentioned in this report have been changed to protect their identities