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What SMEs Need to Know About Child Labor in Turkey

Globally, around 168 million children aged 5-14 work, preventing them from attending school and making it harder for them to achieve their full potential. Conflicts and crises often force more children into the labor market and put them at higher risk of exploitation. As the backbone of every economy, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) play a critical role in the fight to eliminate child labor. In Turkey, Building Markets’ Sustainable Marketplace project supports SMEs working in the formal economy, particularly those owned and operated by refugees, helping them to grow and create more jobs. In doing so, this reduces the reliance on the informal sector and child labor.

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Over the past several decades, Turkey has become a major manufacturing center, aided by its strategic location bridging the Asian and European continents. Production is led by SMEs specializing in textiles, footwear, and auto-mechanics, as well as agricultural products, among others. While this has been beneficial in many ways for the local economy, it has also created fragmented supply chains and a large informal business sector, both of which are difficult to regulate. This, as well as high rates of poverty throughout the country expose many children to illegal and often hazardous labor practices.

Approximately 32.1% of children in Turkey are living in poverty. In 2019, 720,000 children under the age of 18 were participating in economic activities, primarily in the service, agricultural, and manufacturing sectors. While already high, these statistics do not account for the 1.7 million Syrian children and 120,000 non-Syrian refugee children living in the country.

Turkey has the largest refugee population in the world—nearly 3.7 million people—the majority of whom have come from Syria following the outbreak of civil war. Obtaining a legal work permit can be difficult and takes time. Additional barriers, such as language and access to finance make finding a job or starting a business even more difficult. This leads many newcomers to turn to job opportunities in the informal economy. Families take the opportunity to employ their children to make ends meet and develop work skills, which results in child labor risks and enforces cycles of poverty and vulnerability. According to Save the Children, between 25-30% of all registered refugee boys under 18 work in order to bolster their household income—the primary factor driving children into the labor market. Additionally, because of limited access to education, financial constraints, and discrimination, Syrian children face a higher risk of remaining in the labor market permanently.

With inequality on the rise in Turkey, the COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded these issues. Job losses disproportionately impacted informal and low-skilled workers, many of whom are part of already vulnerable communities. As poverty levels increase, more children are likely to end up working. On top of already unsafe conditions, COVID-19 also presents new and heightened health risks for children as well as their families or those they live in close contact with.

While Turkey has implemented a number of plans and policies to regulate and eradicate child labor, more work can be done at the business and consumer level. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) provides a number of recommendations that SMEs and buyers can follow to help eliminate child labor. These include immediate actions, such as reviewing and following national laws and policies, refraining from hiring children, and removing children from unsafe work. Buyers can also implement and uphold requirements for suppliers to avoid purchasing goods or services from businesses that employ children.

The Building Markets model works to support the elimination of child labor. In our training and mentorship sessions, we highlight the importance of legal and ethical business practices. By verifying each SME we work with, we ensure that businesses are legally operating in the formal economy. Through our online Matchmaking Platform, buyers have access to business profiles for over 2,200 verified SMEs in Turkey who work in a wide variety of industries. Similarly, our matchmaking services can help connect buyers with verified businesses that meet their needs.

Buying from these local businesses creates more jobs, particularly for Syrian refugee-owned and refugee-employing businesses, decreases reliance on the informal sector, and helps reduce child labor risks.

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