Small hands, big profits: Syrian child labor in Turkey


Work piling up

Khalil is 13-years old and comes from Damascus. He works five days a week in this tailor’s workshop in the basement of a residential house in the working-class Istanbul district of Bagcilar. In this area there are sewing rooms like this one in almost every street. And there are almost always children like Khalil working in them.


Child colleagues

The sewing machines rattle practically non-stop. Four of the 15 or so people working in this tailor’s shop are children, all from Syria. The Turkish textile industry is one of the trades in which a lot of people work illegally. Many are underage children who are taken on as cheap labor, with no papers and no social security.


Yearning for school

"I don’t think about the future," says 13-year-old Khalil, who’s sorting bits of cotton fabric. A young woman is sewing them into women’s panties. Sorting, cutting, sewing — the two are a practiced team. Back home in Syria, Khalil was in third grade; then the war came, they fled, and he hasn’t been back to school since.


Exploiting or helping?

Child labor is forbidden in Turkey. Anyone who employs children under the age of 15 is open to prosecution. The owner of this tailor’s shop knows this, which is why he wants to remain anonymous. "I give the children work so they don’t have to beg. I know it’s forbidden, but on the other hand I’m helping families that wouldn’t have enough to survive otherwise," he says.


"I hope I can go home"

Musa is also 13. Like many people in this tailor’s workshop, he comes from the province of Afrin in northern Syria, which has a majority Kurdish population. What does he do when he’s not working? "Play football," he says. "I hope there will soon be peace in Syria and we’ll be able to go back home. Then I want to study there and become a doctor."


Cheap is the priority

Thousands of women’s panties are sewn and packed here every day, in various colors, patterns and sizes. They’re sold in bazaars for a few Turkish lira apiece. The aim is to undercut the Chinese competition. The children here are paid a rate of less than 50 euro cents ($0.60) an hour. Adults earn about twice that.


A 12-hour day

Aras is 11 and has been working here for four months. Her mother is pregnant; her father has a job of his own in a textile factory. Aras’ day begins at 8 a.m. and often doesn’t finish until 8 p.m. She’s allowed two breaks a day. Aras earns 700 Turkish lira a month — around 153 euros.


Studying is a luxury

Because she works Monday to Friday, Aras can’t go to an ordinary public school. She attends classes at a Syrian aid organization at the weekend, so that at least she’s learning something. Math, Arabic and Turkish are on the curriculum. The teachers themselves are refugees from the war in Syria.


Lessons are time out

More than 70 children aged between four and 18 attend the little Syrian school each day. Sometimes the teachers visit families at home and persuade the parents to send their children to lessons, at least a few days a week, to give them a stab at a better future, and to give them a chance — for a while — to be what they are: children.

Hard work instead of study: In Turkey there are thousands of Syrian refugee children who aren’t going to school. Many of them work 12-hour days, even though child labor is banned. A visit to a tailor’s workshop.

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