ORDU, Turkey. Two kids are crouching amidst the branches of a thick bush. The siblings Semanur (12) and Ibrahim (14) are nimbly picking spiny rosettes of hazelnuts from the ground and throwing them in a bucket. Their small hands have to pull the branches of the hazel tree closer to shake off more nuts. Instead of attending school, the sister and her older brother spend six months travelling across Turkey to find work. Just like other tens of thousands of Turkish children, they set out in the spring to harvest tomatoes and apricots, and in the autumn they dig potatoes and pick cotton. But now, as the summer draws to an end, all the children head towards the north where the harvesting of hazelnuts is in full swing.
The crunchy kernels are Turkey’s national pride; three-quarters of the worldwide production are harvested here, bringing into state coffers each year the equivalent of close to EUR 800 million. A flock of international producers, such as Ferrero and Nestlé, buy local nuts for their chocolates. The nuts used in the children’s delicacy Nutella are also harvested in Turkey. But child pickers, who account for a large part of Turkey’s hazelnut harvest workforce, are hardly getting any sweets. Children as young as eight work and live in conditions reminiscent of the harsh times in Europe at the beginning of the industrial revolution or of the Great Depression in the early 1930s.
SIX MONTHS OF HOLIDAYS
Following Semanur and Ibrahim, we climb a narrow paved road which rises steeply from Ordu to the rounded hilltops. Along the road, huge tarpaulins with drying nuts are spread in front of the houses, on rooftops and even around mosques. Women sit among piles of nuts, their long skirts fanned out around their hips, pawing through the crop to remove husk residues and worm-infested nuts.
As soon as the road reaches the mountains, a beautiful vista of the Black Sea opens up and an endless range of green hills lining its coast, thickly covered with bushy hazels – a full half of Turkey’s hazelnuts (around 350 thousand tons) are grown in the vicinity of Ordu. After riding up the road for a while, the car stops at its destination. The Duran family’s white-washed house is surrounded by sacks of harvested nuts and, on the side, husks are dried for their future use as fuel for the stove or litter for the animals. Right behind the house, the orchard of the Durans stretches up a steep slope. You can get there via a muddy path that is crumbling underfoot while its reddish mud sticks to your shoes. You should, however, try not to think about the swarms of ticks living in the bushes. After a few minutes’ walk, five-hundred-kilo sacks of nuts appear through the trees and, right behind them, the first nut pickers, including Semanur and Ibrahim Kili.
They come from the city of Silvan found some seven hundred kilometres away from here, not far from the border with Syria. “Our parents have a small farm with chickens and cows, but we are eight siblings altogether and animal farming alone can’t support us all,” explains the petite Senamur, who is dressed in jeans and wearing a baseball cap. She is the youngest labourer at the Duran farm. She spends only six months a year at home with her parents, in their two-bedroom house. From April to October, the children, distributed among extended family members, roam Turkey to contribute to the tight family budget. Because of this, they miss four months of school every year. “It’s quite normal, in the spring almost the whole class leaves for work. It’s up to the teacher to fail or pass us, and so far he has always let us pass,” adds Ibrahim, wiping off sweat with his hands covered in bruises. The end of August is still very hot here.
Naturally, the siblings would prefer to spend the summer watching TV or playing with friends as they used to a few years ago. Semanur started working this year, while it’s the third year for Ibrahim. “But we’re poor, so what can we do? I don’t even have decent shoes,” Semanur points to her sneakers looking three sizes too big. Duran pays them the same amount he pays adult labourers: 35 Turkish lira a day, or just over EUR 15, which roughly corresponds to the minimum wage in Turkey. They would not hear anything about a ban on child labour. “Sometimes we get bored and we’d like to go to school more often,” says Ibrahim, “but if we didn’t come here, we wouldn’t eat. Unless our parents find a better-paying job, we need the extra money we make here.”
A few metres away, Mustafa Duran is smoking a cigarette. A grey-haired man with a giant moustache, he is friends with an influential local politician, who is also an acquaintance of our interpreter. This is why, unlike other farmers, he agreed after being prompted by the politician to talk about the child labour employed on his land.
Duran himself works hard in the nut farm: he helps carry the sacks filled with nuts, he weeds and trims off the bushes. Since the government stopped guaranteeing the minimum purchase price, the farm is no longer bringing much profit. Duran gets the equivalent of EUR 1.8 per kilo of nuts. He harvests only about eight tonnes on average, so he spends a good part of the year abroad working on construction sites. “Sure, the kids should be at school, but it’s not my problem – it’s their parents’ responsibility,” he says.
He hires the children because if he refuses to do so, the entire family of harvesters threatens to go to another farmer. “The harvest lasts only several weeks and there’s a shortage of labourers at that time of the year, so I can’t afford to send them away,” says Duran. He knows he violates the law and could be fined, but he takes the risk without major worries. “We’ve never had any inspection here, and even if we had, the fine is about eighty euros per kid,” he says. “That would still pay off.”
CHILDREN OF THE SEASON
Turkey has signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and child labour is officially prohibited. Still, tens of thousands of children work in Turkey as street vendors, shoe cleaners, sex slaves and seasonal harvesters picking hazelnuts and other crops.
The topic of the “hazelnut children” was taken outside Turkey’s borders by the Dutch-Turkish journalist Mehmet Ülger. In 2010, the national Dutch television showed his TV documentary, Children of the Season, which depicts stories that are similar to that of Ibrahim and Semanur. He has documented the lives of families from the country’s southeastern provinces as they load their vans come spring and head to wealthier regions. Ülger demonstrated that the migrants are under constant stress, as their work without written contracts for different farmers every month limits their ability to protect themselves against working overtime for no pay, getting overworked and living in very poor conditions. The journalist also reiterated the well-known fact that the need to work makes children miss school, landing them in a vicious circle. Without education, they will be unlikely to find a better job later, leaving them with the only option of migrating, just like countless generations before them did. And if they have a lot of children as many of their parents do, the children will have to start working at an early age as well.
The documentary, which showed that multinational corporations are tied to child labour in Turkey, caused uproar in The Netherlands. A number of activists from the Stop Child Labour organization launched a massive campaign. They inundated western importers with letters and forced Dutch and European politicians, among them Czech EU Commissioner for Enlargement Štefan Füle, to pressure the Turkish Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs to address the problem.
The success of these methods of combating child labour has been proven in Ecuador, the world’s largest exporter of bananas. Human Rights Watch issued a report in 2002 which describes how school age or even younger children work on the banana plantations of this South American country to help increase the family budget for a daily pay of $3.50. The report was quickly picked by international media, such as The New York Times, the Guardian and Fox News, and the interest of the public made banana importers react. The U.S., as the largest importer of Ecuadorian bananas, threatened to impose sanctions. As a result, the Ecuadorian Ministry of Labour enacted stringent legislation banning child labour, and the government introduced frequent inspections on plantations. According to the statistics of the International Labour Organization, each year thirty Ecuadorian inspectors check around four thousand plantations and send home two thousand child workers.
In addition to such government measures, the implementation of the Fair trade certificate caused changes by guaranteeing set purchase prices to farmers, provided they meet social and environmental requirements. In the past decade, the exporters have raised the purchase prices of bananas by two-thirds, which means that the Ecuadorian school children no longer need to contribute to family budgets. It’s not like children are out of the woods completely, however. Some only moved to less exposed industries or to more remote farms where inspectors don’t come often. Still, the data from Human Rights Watch and UNICEF shows that the proportion of child workers in Ecuador fell to one-fifth of what it was a decade ago.
Examples outside the developing countries prove that it takes decades to fully eradicate child labour. Great Britain passed its first legislation to regulate child labour in the 1830s, but twenty years later one-half of children under 15 years of age were still working in the British Isles. The total prohibition of child labour and, in particular, its enforcement, had not been achieved in Great Britain until a hundred years later, in the late 1930s.
Turkey has already taken the first steps on this road. Two years ago, the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs raised the minimum age of child labourers from 12 to 15. The governor of the Ordu Province announced that the aforementioned 80-euro fines would be levied on both the parents and the farmers who allow children to work. The problem is that none of the people from the farms or camps we visited has ever seen any inspector. The same applies to the project of providing education for the children of seasonal migrant launched by the ministry this year. Theoretically, teachers should come to harvesters’ camps and help children catch up with their schools’ curricula, but nobody has seen them either. Local experts say that one of the contributing factors is that the migrant workers in the camps are mostly ethnic Kurds who have traditionally been the target of prejudice in Turkey. “People see them as inferior, which is why Kurdish child labour is not a priority for officials. They create a variety of laws, but don’t enforce them,” says Esin Uyar from the humanitarian NGO Support to Life.
“That’s not true, we have been intensely involved in addressing the problem in the past two years,” Ordu Mayor Seyit Torun says in response to the accusation. “We have spent considerable funds on combating child labour, our officers go to farms and check whether children work there,” says the stocky mayor while seated in a luxury office that is abundantly decorated with his photographs and has a view of the sea. But when asked how much money was spent and how many inspectors they have, Mr. Torun has no answer. “I was never interested in [obtaining the figures],” he said.
The only effective government measure so far has been the earmarking of the equivalent of EUR 11.7 million for improving the sanitary conditions in several camps. One of them is a settlement about an hour drive west from Ordu, where three hundred tents, some marked with UN logos, have been erected on a parched piece of land. At the entrance stands a new mosque, and further on a little house with showers and toilets. Although the pickers still carry water from the river, the drinking water, considered a luxury by many, runs from a tap not far from the buildings. And there is also electricity here. The space between tents is littered with rubbish and mounds of nuts, while children in ragged clothes play ball, and chickens run through the visitors’ feet now and then. The air is suffused with an aroma of freshly baked bread pancakes, roasted peppers and stewed eggplant due to the women in colourful skirts preparing food on open fire. Many of them have bright blue or green eyes shining out of their sun-tanned faces that are adorned with small tattoos. Their heads are covered with multi-coloured scarves with glittering beads sewn into them.
About a thousand Kurds can consider themselves lucky to be living in this camp. They have secured such relatively comfortable living conditions through a “first come first served” system. Just a few kilometres away are camps where people not only carry water from the river, but have no drinking water, no toilets, and the only light after dark comes from their fires. Most residents in the government-funded camp came from the city of Adiyaman located in the south east of the country. None of the women can read or write, while the majority of men have completed only elementary education.
“Our parents also travelled roughly three-quarters of the year, so we spent only a limited time in school,” says the thirty-five-year-old Süleyman Gözek. He is sitting with the other men on a carpet in an open tent, drinking tea with the visitors from the typical tulip-shaped glasses, while his three wives are seated behind him. “A year ago we camped here, and there were no sanitary facilities or electricity at that time. We had only our own tents and there were few of them, so we had no privacy whatsoever. It is much better now,” says the well-built, dark-haired man dressed in tan trousers and a striped shirt.
Adiyaman, with a population of two hundred thousand people, has an 18% unemployment rate. For instance, Süleyman lives on seasonal work. As the head of a twenty-member family he must work hard, just like his children, to support all of them. The decision to have a large family is one of the reasons why children must also work on plantations. “My religion bans contraception and sees a blessing in a big family. Who would take care of me when I’m old if not them?” says Süleyman Gözek. According to the Turkish social workers, sex education has yet to arrive in the notoriously underfinanced southeast.
Not far from Ordu is another place with an apparent improvement in the living conditions. The Uzunisa camp, built last year on the outskirts of Adiyaman by the government, offers the same view of simple government tents standing amidst dirt and litter, but in addition to sanitary facilities it boasts the large, brick building of a community centre where the aforementioned Istanbul-based NGO Support to Life works with children. The German food giant REWE (owner of the Billa and Penny Market Czech retail chains), which also imports nuts from Turkey, donated EUR 100,000 to Support to Life for the education of the little pickers in Uzunisa. “The goal was to offer the children an alternative and something they can do while migrating with their parents, by helping them catch up with school work,” the social worker Esin Uyar explains. A huge banner on the one-story building reads, “Dear parents, say no to the child labour used in hazelnut harvesting.” The harvest activity has already switched to the mountains, so only a dozen tents are left, but just a week ago the camp housed a thousand people and hundreds of children attended tutoring sessions and the kindergarten.
“The tutoring held in camps could be one of the simpler and, in the short run, more feasible ways of assisting the children working on hazelnut plantations,” Leonie Blokhuis of Stop Child Labour confirms. Even when the parents don’t bring the children to work with them, they have to bring them along during their travels across the country, and they don’t have much choice about keeping them occupied during the day. However, no other camp can offer a service similar to that in Uzunisa.
A FOUR PERCENT RISE
The US food company Noor is testing another way of alleviating the children’s situation through fair trade farms in Turkey. At one of them that is located near the city of Giresun, none of the workers are younger than sixteen and a number of them are secondary school students who speak some English and make use of school holidays to earn extra money. Their employer, Özer Akbaşli, is also the president of the local Agrarian Chamber. “Noor offered us a four per cent increase to the current purchase price and subsidies for fertilizers. We can grow more crops and, at the same time, pay more to the employees,” says Akbaşli. Noor’s farms are marked with signs reading “This is not a place for child labour” and the company’s representative visits the farms in person to see if the policy is being observed. “About eighty farmers have signed up so far. It’s not many among the hundred thousand farms engaged in hazelnut business in Turkey, but we have just begun,” notes Akbaşli.
Other than the government and the parents themselves, the key to solving the problem lies primarily in the hands of multinational corporations buying Turkish nuts. And all the main players have eventually responded to the appeals of non-profit organizations: Ferrero, Nestlé, CAOBISCO (the Association of Chocolate, Biscuit & Confectionary Industries of Europe), REWE and Kraft. All of them participated in a June 2012 meeting in Ankara where they pledged to “prepare action plans”. But Nestlé has been the only one to date to take an important step to eliminate child labour from its products. It is currently not possible, given that the farms don’t supply nuts only to Noor, to trace the farm the international food companies buy nuts from and to check whether child labour has been involved. Without proper documentation, the kernels are passed from the harvester to the farm owner and then, through an intermediary, to the roasting plant, and finally to the exporter. “We started this year to require suppliers to provide exact data about the passage of our nuts,” says the Nestlé spokesperson Chris Hogg. “We expect the system to become completely transparent by 2014, by then we will be able to control our specific suppliers more effectively.”
Ferrero, which imports around one third of the nuts it uses from Turkey, is less specific. “ We must first monitor the current situation and then we could proceed to completely eradicate child labour by 2020,” says Hana Mašková from the legal department of the Czech branch, voicing the company’s official stand.
The most effective and also most demanding solution is to eliminate the key reason for the Kurdish migration to such plantations, namely the high unemployment in the south east of the country. Agriculture had long been the traditional source of livelihood for the 15 millions of Turkish Kurds. They had been running their own, mostly tabacco farms, and despite having large families they were able to make ends meet.
All of that changed some thirty years ago. Turkey launched several major economic reforms in the 1980s: the government slashed subsidies for the agriculture sector, stopped guaranteeing minimum purchase prices and, consequently, caused a mass exodus from rural to urban areas where farmers sought jobs in factories. At that time, in 1984, the Kurdish terrorist organization PKK declared an armed struggle for the independence of Kurdistan. Dozens of attacks against the Turkish army and government buildings sparked retaliatory military actions from the government. State funding for the Kurdish provinces was slashed. Although the fiercest conflicts between the government and PKK ceased in the late 1990s, the south east has remained considerably poorer than the rest of the country, with triple the national unemployment rate and the education system in shambles. Often up to a hundred kids crowded in a single classroom are thought by one teacher.
According to Leonie Blokhuis, “the improved conditions in the tent camps and the legislation concerning their inhabitants are a step in the right direction, but it won’t solve the roots of the problem.” What might help is an increase in government spending on local education, local tax relief to attract investors, or support for micro lending. No such measures have been taken in the south east yet.
Lucie Kavanová is a reporter with the Czech magazine RESPEKT, where this article was originally published. Translated by Lenka Rubenstein. The article was produced for the Next in Line project, which is co-funded by the European Union. The contents of this project are the sole responsibility of RESPEKT and Transitions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.”