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Middle East

Syrian workers exploited on Turkish grape farms

media Farmer Moustafa Yalmaz Ruth Michaelson

Ever-increasing numbers of Syrian refugees are crossing into southern Turkey, fleeing the shelling that has engulfed Syria’s north.

But with 78,500 refugees registered legally, and many more likely to have crossed illegally, the sheer numbers are seen as a cause to raise rents and increase job insecurity.

The refugees are desperate for work, making them vulnerable to exploitation such as underpaid farm work on the farm land spanning the border.

It’s grape season, and the farmers are welcoming the influx of cheap labour, often at the expense of the refugees themselves.

The Azazis are a family of seventeen sharing three rooms in a run-down house near the farms in Kilis.

Ali Azazi explains: “I’m a trained English teacher, so I would happily try and do that job here. My uncle here is a plumber, and that’s also a job that would transfer. But right now our only option is to work on the grape farm, and be paid 20 liras per day, which we know isn’t the regular rate: the Turkish workers are paid 30.”

He also described the working conditions as insufferable: “the weather here is incredibly hot, and we work ten hours a day in the fields: 5am until 3pm.”

The family are keen to ensure they have a steady income, as the cost of living is considerably higher in Turkey, even though the border is a ten minute drive away.

The Azazis fear the onset of winter in a house with no electricity, where one room doesn’t even have a proper ceiling.

The Sijuani family also suffer a similar experience. Osama, Hassan, Alaa and Kujani also work on the grape farms. They say that they try to help other Syrians find work with them, even though they know they’ll be mistreated too.

“We agreed that it would be 17 liras a day with the boss. He told us that he will never raise our wages. When we asked if we could just get an extra five, he said he’d rather give the money to his Turkish workers. I want to give to my own people and you are foreign here, he said.”

30 Turkish lira per day meets the legal minimum wage for the first half of 2012, as agreed by the government in December 2011. But 17 Turkish Lira per day equals an average of 510 per month, far below the legal minimum of 710.

Despite this, Alaa Sijuani describes why many are scared to attempt to fight back.

“We never tried to complain anywhere. We are looking for a life here. We don’t need any trouble. We have enough troubles at home. We are scared that if we complain, the Turkish government will make us leave.”

Moustafa Yalmaz, a grape farm owner in Kilis, said that he knew farmers who deliberately exploit the Syrian refugees, but that was not his policy.

“In my personal opinion, I’m pretty disgusted that there are Turkish people ripping the Syrians off like this. Even with the houses, they cost three times as much. This is not a good situation.”

The refugees are trapped in Kilis: many of them accept the low pay and mistreatment on the grape farms because the work is seasonal, and will soon run out in the late Autumn. All fear the rents that are continually rising as more refugees arrive, many of whom cannot find room in the refugee camps.

Alaa Sijuani argued that no matter how bad the situation, they have no choice but to stay for now: “we thought about what happens when the season is over, and we agreed that God won’t forget us. I mean, we came here with the just the clothes that we were wearing, to save our own lives.”

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