Uncovering the open secret of child labour

By Aslı Tatlıadım

Today, in Turkey’s farmlands, industrial zones, cafes, workshops and streets, Syrian refugee children have joined the thousands of minors forced to work to survive.

Children working in a glass making business rest on a break in Şanlıurfa. Source: Documentary Photographer Kerem Yücel

Children working in a glass making business rest on a break in Şanlıurfa. Source: Documentary Photographer Kerem Yücel

My normal workday involves researching child labour, both at my desk and on the ground, but I still occasionally find myself caught off guard by the stark reality of the issue. Last week, I met two friends who also work for vulnerable populations including refugees. We were sitting in one of Istanbul’s most famous bar streets, Mis Sokak, in Taksim. It was approximately 1 a.m., and we were on our second beer, when an eight-year-old Syrian girl called Asiye approached us.

She was not the first child that had tried to sell us something that night and we suspected she would not be the last. In such situations, what is a person who works with child labour issues supposed to do? My usual strategy is to talk to them briefly, acknowledging their existence without buying anything; as the more money they earn during the night, the more likely they will be sent back onto the streets again tomorrow. However, Asiye had something different in mind. She was unusually talkative and friendly, her hands full of pistachios, which she offered us before asking if we would like to see a trick she had learned the other night. We agreed, she sat on the fourth and empty seat at the table and taught us her magic.

We talked for a long time and eventually learned that her father had died in the war, while her mother was back in Syria. Asiye, along with her two siblings were living with her aunt, who occasionally found cleaning work, her aunt’s husband, who worked as a junk collector, and their three children.

As our conversation came to a close around 2 a.m., Asiye said “how much is the juice?” referring to the apple juice we had bought for her from the store next door. She wanted to contribute to the bill, to exert some agency. And so the four of us paid together, with Asiye producing a one Turkish Lira coin from her pocket.

We walked her home, following winding streets that I as grown woman would feel unsafe to pass through alone. There, we learned that everything Asiye had said was true. Her family lived in a single room, and she worked selling tissues almost every night until 2 or 3 a.m., before returning home by herself.

Asiye’s is one of the most visible child labour stories in Turkey, and many inhabitants in Istanbul will have a similar tale to tell you, but stories are not always enough for good advocacy.

For that you need organizations. But 375 of these have been shut down recently, including Gündem Çocuk, which specialized in advocacy and providing legal services and consultations to vulnerable children. Child labour and the resulting murder of children in workplace accidents was one of its main concerns. However, under the ongoing state of emergency imposed by the government, its doors are now closed.

In times like these, when NGOs can be shut down as easily as closing a window, and activists are arrested faster than they can type, cold hard numbers are an advocacy worker’s best friend. Thus, for the safety of this writer and the integrity of the information presented, it is through numbers that child labour must be discussed.

A girl rests on her break from hazelnut harvest in the Black Sea. Source: Documentary Photographer Kerem Yücel

A girl rests on her break from hazelnut harvest in the Black Sea. Source: Documentary Photographer Kerem Yücel

The Numbers

The Turkish Statistical Institute (TSI), a government research body, investigates child labour every four years. The latest figures from 2012 conservatively estimated that there were nearly one million child labourers in Turkey. To put that number in context, there are 81 cities in the country, and only 20 have a population larger than one million. Thus, according to the 2012 statistics, there are more children employed illegally than the populations of 61 cities in Turkey.

This number does not include those over 16. Nor does it include the hundreds of thousands of young girls who are domestic labourers in their family home, or worse, in the homes of their husbands – with the TSI putting the number of child brides in the country at 181,000 in 2015. But refugee children like Asiye are arguably the most significant group missed by the TSI figures. This is in large part due to the timing of the study. The Syrian refugee crises erupted in 2011, with the flow of refugees into Turkey only intensifying after 2012. Thus, Syrian children are not represented by this number, potentially adding hundreds of thousands to the existing one million.

Now consider this: there are approximately 900,000 registered school age Syrian children residing in Turkey. According to UNICEF, 550,000 of these do not have access to school. NGOs such as Support to Life – which specializes in humanitarian aid and child labour – report that Syrian children who don’t go to school are at a much greater risk of finding employment in the grey economy: working informally, often on the streets or at unregistered businesses, unregulated and unmonitored.

Support to Life’s research has shown that one in four Syrian households in Istanbul has at least one working child, with half of those working illegally in underground textile workshops. Only small fragments of this issue are discussed in the media, and the problem remains in the shadows due to a lack of comprehensive research.

Hidden in plain sight

Although country-wide studies are lacking, if you live in Turkey, encounters like mine make it is possible to observe the tip of the iceberg throughout daily life. In urban spaces, streets, small workshops, local businesses, cafes and restaurants, child labourers will unfailingly come into view in some capacity every day. However, some of the worst forms of child labour happen out of sight: hidden in agricultural lands, underground textile workshops, cotton supply chain factories, the list goes on.

Take agriculture for example. The sector claimed 400,000 child labourers in the 2012 statistics. With most of these children working in seasonal migratory agriculture, where families travel for up to nine months across the country, live in tent settlements that resemble refugee camp conditions, and work at all stages of almost all crop cycles in the country.

A boy working in the tomato harvest in Adana, a city in southern Turkey. Source: Photo Credit: Documentary Photographer Kerem Yücel

A boy working in the tomato harvest in Adana, a city in southern Turkey. Source: Photo Credit: Documentary Photographer Kerem Yücel

Apart from their inability to access education, children face serious risks to their development and health in this sector; working on the land in extremely harsh conditions for up to 12 hours a day, seven days a week. During one of my conversations with these children in Adana last summer, a 13-year-old boy told me “What do you mean to like work? Of course I don’t like it, it is hard, so, so hard, can you stand underneath the sun for that many hours, for 10 hours? You can’t even stand for 10 minutes.” He was right, the temperature outside had reached a sweltering 41 degrees Celsius.

Regardless of whether they work behind the scenes, or in areas visible to the public eye, child labourers are at risk from a wide variety of neglect and abuse. Apart from losing the right to education or play, their lives are put at risk. In the past three and a half years, there have been 194 recorded incidences of child murder through accidents in the workplace, the youngest casualty being just 6 years old. Half of them worked in agriculture. 19 of the 194 children were Syrian, although it is possible that the deaths of Syrians remain under-recorded.

Unanswered questions

So, if the issue of child labour is apparent through daily encounters with working children like Asiye, and the valuable work of NGOs, why does it persist, and worse, increase? The law concerning child labour in Turkey is quite clear. Turkey is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which condemns economic exploitation of children and has superiority over national legislation according to the Article 90 of the Constitution. Further, the national legal framework concerning child labour is comprehensive, with unambiguous articles under the Child Protection Code, Labour Code, Civil Code, Penal Code and the Constitution among others.

Yet these laws are effective only if they are enforced. Data from the The Ministry of Labour and Social Security shows that only 232 fines were given out to workplaces for using child labour in the last five years. At 1560 TL, roughly 412 Euros, the fine is hardly discouraging; costing less than the minimum wage of a registered worker. There were 970 workplace inspectors in Turkey in 2014, not all of whom were yet fully qualified. Nevertheless, if each of these inspectors had given just one fine for employing one child in one workplace in one year, it would more than triple the penalties given in the last half a decade.

The next country-wide research on child labour by the Turkish Statistical Institute was due in 2016. However, as the year comes to a close, no such study has been released. NGOs that work on the issue are waiting impatiently for TSI to release the information, which will hopefully help reflect the reality of children like Asiye. But in the meantime, one asks why are the laws not implemented effectively? Who benefits from the cheap labour of children working in all stages of the supply chain for a wide variety of products? And why does this issue remain insufficiently investigated?

Child labour in Turkey and across the globe is a complex issue with cross cutting variables and dynamics. But it is important to remember that while history, politics, economy, and cultural factors all play a role, the children themselves must also be consulted as to what they think of their situation. This is the first in a series of articles that explores these issues through a developmental anthropology lens, looking next at the biggest employer of child labour in Turkey: the Seasonal Migratory Agriculture sector.



The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not reflect in any way the institutions to which they are affiliated or any other institutions referenced here.

If you would like to make a donation to Support to Life, which aims to combat child labour under its child protection program, please visit their websiteIf you would like to see more photographs from the documentary photographer Kerem Yücel, visit his website on issues related to social rights and movements.







  1. Child labor is the natural outcome of refugee influx. It is not directly related to the closing of NGOs in the scope of state of emergency. And as far as I am concerned no NGOs working to improve children’s conditions in Turkey have been closed down since the state of emergency started. Turkey, trying to absorb more than 4 million displaced people, can naturally experience problems stemming from this conflict. However, I believe it is the EU and its extensions that should be criticized for being too silent over this tragedy. And I must say that articles such as this one are politically one-sided and exploit the current situation of refugees and oppressed people in order to score points, thus must be ignored.

  2. The article clearly states that there already were one million child labourers working in Turkey long before the Syrian refugee crises has erupted into the current dimension. This is a result of the economy working largely on informal principles that allow for the child labour to develop, supplemented with ambiguous or inadequately implemented laws. The point the article obviously makes is not that Syrian children would be the only child labourers in the country but that they are the new actors in an already existing chronicle problem. The article does not take sides, it eloquently presents what is happening in Turkey. Unfortunately, supporters of the AKP party often like to blame Europe for shortcomings of the government’s ability to implement its own laws and recognise its own duty to abide by human rights – while simultaneously supporting and financially profiting from illegal and inhuman mutual deals, such as the Turkey – EU deal on the returning of the refugees to Turkey. The article also clearly names the NGO Gündem Çocuk that worked on children’s rights and was shut down by the government. It is actually your comment that sounds like a poorly researched government propaganda, and less like an actual fact – based counterargument.


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