In Turkey, Syrian labor crisis deepens amid strictest COVID-19 lockdown yet


May 6, 2021

ISTANBUL — Worse than the “back-breaking” work that Muhammad Hourani does for 11 hours a day, is that it will be interrupted for weeks due to a total lockdown imposed by Turkey as a preventative measure against the COVID-19 virus from April 29 to May 17. 

Hourani, a 16-year-old Syrian refugee, works at an upholstery workshop in Turkey’s İzmir province where he lives with his family, displaced from the Damascus district of Jobar in 2018. He has not received “any compensation or wages from my employer for the days of the curfew,” he told Syria Direct. Making matters worse, Hourani’s father also didn’t get any compensation for his work. 

On April 26, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced a total curfew in all Turkish provinces following a rise in coronavirus cases in recent months. As of May 4, the country had recorded approximately 4.9 million cases. 

Hourani’s story reflects the situation of many Syrian workers in Turkey, especially those without work permits, amid the shutdown. Abu Salim, a father of four living in Istanbul, told Syria Direct that he is “not authorized to work during the lockdown, nor am I going to get any amount of money as compensation from my employer.” “How,” he wondered, “would the employer give me material compensation or pay for the days of the curfew, when he cuts our pay for time off, even if it’s sick leave?”

For Obaidah, stopping work is not just a disaster for him and his family, but also for two families in Damascus. He sends money to two of his brothers living in East Ghouta, he told Syria Direct, expressing regret that he is unable to send anything to help them buy things for Eid.

Workers face the shutdown

“I’ve accumulated debts from the last shutdown because my work stopped,” said Abdulrahman Obaidah (a pseudonym). “I don’t know where to borrow money during the current one.” The father of three, who works as an electrician day laborer, is helpless to secure his needs during the lockdown period. 

For Obaidah, stopping work is not just a disaster for him and his family, but also for two families in Damascus. He sends money to two of his brothers living in East Ghouta, he told Syria Direct, expressing regret that he is unable to send anything to help them buy things for Eid.

Obaidah is seriously considering returning to Syria “if living conditions remain how they are,” he said. “A number of my friends have had the same idea.”

The president of the Free Syrian Lawyers Association, Ghazwan Koronful, who lives in Turkey, said “600 Syrian refugees working as day laborers have returned to Syria in the past 72 hours.” He told Syria Direct that “for some of them, the option to stay in Turkey was no longer possible, especially since the lockdown is not short and some might not have the money for three days of food.” 

The fallout of the total curfew was multiplied for Muhammad Nooreddin (a pseudonym), as he contracted COVID-19 two weeks ago. This forced him to take unpaid leave from the factory in Istanbul where he works, he told Syria Direct. His leave then continued due to the shutdown, also without financial compensation. 

Under these circumstances, Syrian refugees are not able to “get the money for rent and utility bills, as well as the basic necessities of food and drink,” said economic researcher Firas Shabou. They also face the problem of “paying expenses in the current month of Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr,” he told Syria Direct

For that reason, Nooreddin said he will be forced to sell his wife’s ring for the money. It is the “last and only” solution,” he added. 

Lost rights

A large segment of Syrians in Turkey work in unsafe and bad working conditions, according to Shabou. “They do not have work permits and there are no organizations or unions looking after their rights.” As a result, they fall victim to “working long hours for little pay, and the shutdown comes as a disaster in every sense of the word.” 

More than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, Syrian refugees have run through their savings. The crisis has particularly burdened workers without work permit documents due to repeated lockdowns and a lack of compensation. 

Lawyer Koronful explained that “a worker who has a permit, and whose institution is authorized to work during the shutdown is able to work,” pointing out that “a work permit entitles its holder to move around. They can obtain a notice of this permission from the Turkish government’s services app [e-Devlet].” 

Even if businesses stop their work during the period of the total lockdown, under Turkish law “they have a responsibility to pay the worker’s wages, whether they are full- or part-time.” 

With half of Syrians having lost their jobs or having their livelihoods impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, “day laborers are the most affected group,” a communications official from the Syrian-Turkish Joint Committee, Inas al-Najjar, told Syria Direct

More than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, Syrian refugees have run through their savings. The crisis has particularly burdened workers without work permit documents due to repeated lockdowns and a lack of compensation.

Multiple workers told Syria Direct that foreign workers, including Syrians, not getting work permits nullified their right to claim compensation or basic rights. Nooreddin has lost TRY 12,000 ($1,437 according to the parallel market exchange rate of TRY 8.35 to the dollar), which the owner of the factory he works at owes him. “I can’t claim it,” he said with disapproval. “Nothing obligates him to pay our salaries. Sometimes we get a portion of the salary 20 or 30 days late.” 

Only three percent of Syrians in Turkey work official jobs that include job security, a minimum wage and social security, while “the majority of Syrians do not enjoy the protection provided by the law,” according to al-Najjar. 

Turkish law requires employers to obtain work permits for foreign workers and imposes a fine of TRY 4,323 ($518) on a foreign worker without a permit, while the employer is fined TRY 10,800 ($1,293) for each worker, according to lawyer Koronful. 

But employers are avoiding getting work permits in order to evade their financial obligations such as social security and health insurance, the monthly fees of which amount to about TRY 850 ($120), said Koronful. They are also “employing workers for wages below the minimum established by law, and for working hours of up to 12 hours rather than the legal 8 hours,” he added. 

In order to avoid violations against Syrian workers, Koronful advised those wishing to work “to register with [the Turkish Employment Agency] İŞKUR and get job opportunities through it.” İŞKUR is “a government agency that employers use to look for workers with multiple specialties.” If a worker gets a job through the agency, “the work permit is guaranteed,” and the individual gets their rights.

Timid solutions

As part of its efforts to support Syrians in Turkey during the lockdown, the Syrian Associations Platform, an independent, non-governmental body that helps ensure popular social support for Syrians among Turks, is reaching out to Turkish government institutions and governors, such as the governor of Istanbul, “to obtain exceptions for some Syrian employees of civil society organizations to deliver aid to Syrians” with the aim of ensuring the continued delivery of aid, according to Muhammad Aktaa, head of the organization’s Turkish Relations Committee. 

However, Aktaa stressed the need to “deal with the shutdown in Turkey from a comprehensive perspective, without individualizing it to just Syrians,” he told Syria Direct. “Both Syrians and Turks are suffering.” 

For its part, the Syrian-Turkish Joint Committee is following up with impacted Syrians and reviewing the reports and information received with the aim of “networking with volunteer teams and reaching those most affected,” said al-Najjar. She called on “the most affected families to seek out the humanitarian organizations close to their place of residence” and also appealed to “humanitarian organizations and volunteers to exert more efforts to overcome this stage.”

The Committee has received “requests for assistance from affected Syrian refugees,” said al-Najjar, “but it is not our specialty to provide financial support to those affected.” 

The Turkish Red Crescent provides cash assistance to Syrian refugees, amounting to TRY 120 ($14) per individual. That only covers a portion of expenses, according to Obaidah, who receives TRY 600 ($57) for his family of five while paying “TRY 1,000 ($120) in rent. This is besides bills and basic expenses,” he added. 

As for Nooreddin, he has not received any aid since arriving in Turkey, not even from the Turkish Red Crescent. He is unable to think about the future, not knowing “where to go, if all the doors are closed?”

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This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.

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