"Work is Everything in Life": Refugees Seek Formal Employment in Turkey

I recently completed a two-week research mission in Turkey, investigating the ongoing challenges refugees face in accessing the formal labor market. I met men and women from Syria, Afghanistan and Iran, who shared their personal experiences and described their current jobs and work conditions. They told me about the jobs they are qualified for but which remain elusive to them because they are refugees; they told me how they struggle to make ends meet and how they sometimes run out of money before the end of the month. For many, they face the added pressure of not only supporting themselves and their immediate family, but also having to provide financial assistance to relatives back home.

It was painful to listen to stories of exploitation by unscrupulous employers, about the long hours and difficult working conditions, often for little pay or no pay at all. 

Turkey hosts more than 3.4 million refugees, more than any other country in the world. The majority are from Syria, while others are from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and other countries. Most refugees in Turkey do not have automatic access to the formal labor market: their prospective employer must apply for a work permit, pay a fee, and prove that he or she could not find a Turkish citizen to perform the role. This does not mean that refugees do not work in Turkey. Many do, but only a small number have work permits. The vast majority of refugees work in an informal labor market, which often leaves them vulnerable to abuse.

It was painful to listen to stories of exploitation by unscrupulous employers, about the long hours and difficult working conditions, often for little pay or no pay at all. 

But one meeting in particular gave me hope. When Hamza* and his wife Manal*, both from Syria, welcomed my colleague and me into their home, they told us how they had recently found jobs with work permits through a non-profit organization that connects refugees seeking jobs with potential employers. The non-profit also provides the refugees with job training as needed. Hamza and Manal explained how this opportunity changed their lives.

“Work is everything in life,” Hamza told us. “We’ve spent four years here [in Turkey]. There were days we didn’t have food at home.” He said he and Manal, despite the hardships they had faced, never wanted to ask for charity. They tried living in other cities in Turkey, but, because of the lack of job opportunities, they had decided to move to Istanbul.

There is a world of difference between being forced to work illegally and...working formally and officially under the protections of the law.

Manal told us she had worked in a restaurant in southeast Turkey, cleaning dishes 12 hours per day. She said she was paid 900 Turkish lira per month (about USD $240), less than her Turkish co-worker. Hamza said he had worked in Istanbul, loading and unloading goods from a truck, for 12 and sometimes 15 hours per day, for 1300 Turkish Lira per month (less than USD $300). He said he was fired without warning, and that while he was unemployed and searching for jobs, he got into debt which he is starting to pay back. Hamza and Manal said they now work eight hours per day, and they get paid for overtime if they work longer. They now have good relations with their Turkish coworkers and with the owner of the company.

The issue of employment for refugees in Turkey is complex. But one thing is clear: there is a world of difference between being forced to work illegally and treated at the whim of an employer and working formally and officially under the protections of the law.

I left Hamza and Manal’s home with hope:  this refugee couple now live and work in dignity.

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