Home » The children of seasonal migrants in Turkey are still vulnerable

The children of seasonal migrants in Turkey are still vulnerable

Mehmet Ülger and Astrid van Unen, journalists, Netherlands

In 2010 a film documentary, Children of the Season, told the story of child labour and poor working and living conditions among Turkish seasonal migrants employed to harvest hazelnuts. Its reception was explosive: governments, companies and international organisations were in uproar, and the film triggered a raft of activity. However, as this article by the documentary makers relates, the children of seasonal migrants still remain vulnerable.


At the end of each March, together with her family, Zara leaves Urfa, in the south-eastern part of Turkey, to do seasonal agricultural work. Photo • Courtesy U-Producties

At the end of each March, together with her family, Zara leaves Urfa, in the south-eastern part of Turkey, to do seasonal agricultural work. Photo • Courtesy U-Producties

Uzunisa is seen as a flagship camp in Ordu, one of Turkey’s hazelnut-growing Black Sea provinces, in the fight against the deplorable living conditions of seasonal workers. We were there in 2013 to follow up, as we do every year, on our 2010 documentary Children of the Season, made partly thanks to a contribution by the Bernard van Leer Foundation. On our unannounced visit, we meet Münever, a beautiful young girl with long wavy hair. She is carrying her baby sister, tied to her back. She pulls the straps every couple of minutes to pull her little sister straight.

Münever tells us that she is 10, but she looks more like a 6 year old. ‘That is because,’ she explains, ‘I have had to carry heavy things since I was little. So I never grew much.’ We know that parents on the plantations often encourage their children to pretend they are older, which can be useful in case of spot checks against child labour. In any case, Münever enjoys talking to us. She tells us that the baby is heavy for her, and she does not enjoy having to look after her. After a short while, Münever trudges back to her tent. She walks under a large banner that reads ‘Child labour is forbidden by law’. It seems that childcare is not considered to be labour. Nonetheless, in 2010 the camp was nothing like it is today. Now it has toilets, showers, basins and running water. The situation of the very youngest children of travelling seasonal workers who live in tents is often much more miserable and saddening than this.

We saw this once again last summer, both in the tented camps in the hazelnut-growing regions on the Black Sea and in the agricultural areas on the Mediterranean coast. Once again, the problems that we saw included: a general lack of hygiene in the tented camps; children washing themselves and swimming in dirty water; a general lack of sanitary facilities; no regular running water in one of the camps in Ordu; too few toilets so that people would relieve themselves anywhere outdoors. Very young children in particular go when and where they need to. This may be just outside the tent where other children play.

Many children suffer from undernourishment. For them, the tented camps are an unsafe area, both physically and emotionally. The youngest ones often walk around in bare feet, often half dressed. They walk, fall and run around among the chickens and are thus vulnerable to illnesses. They play with whatever they find on the ground, because educational or stimulatory play materials are non-existent. The children receive very little attention because their mothers are often too tired after work to take care of them, or are away because they are working. This situation creates child-mothers like Münever, who is still a child herself, still learning and still growing.


The documentary and its impact

The main character in our 45-minute 2010 documentary was little Zara. Zara was 9 years old and worked picking hazelnuts for 11 hours in the burning sun, day in, day out. Her little sister took care of her youngest brother and the tent. The rest of the family worked in the plantations.

At the end of every March, Zara’s family leaves Urfa, in the south-eastern part of Turkey, to do seasonal agricultural work. They travel all over the country to pick strawberries, apricots, sugar beet and onions. Picking hazelnuts is always one part of their work. Zara’s family is a typical family that symbolises millions of agricultural labourers who travel constantly with their families, trying to survive. The film premièred in November 2010, following a news item on this subject for the Dutch current affairs programme, EénVandaag.

The message was clear: 75% of all the world’s hazelnuts come from Turkey – contributing about 2 billion dollars to Turkey’s economy – and they are in large part picked by children’s hands. These hazelnuts are used in many products such as chocolates, ice cream, mixed nuts, salads and oil.

The documentary had immediate political impact in the Netherlands, with demands for international pressure to be put on Turkey. In the House of Representatives in the Netherlands, five political parties submitted questions to ministers. This led to the Dutch embassy in Ankara carrying out research which confirmed the existence of child labour in the hazelnut sector. One year later, when we made a follow-up programme for EénVandaag, questions were again raised in the House by nine political parties. During her trade mission to Turkey in 2012, Minister Ploumen’s first action on behalf of Foreign Trade and Joint Cooperation was to sign an agreement with the International Labour Organization to start an anti-child labour project in the hazelnut sector. Ploumen allocated 90,000 euros for this.

Questions were asked of the European Commission in the European Parliament, and child labour became an item of negotiation in Turkey’s accession to the EU.


Authorities in denial

Responding to this pressure, the Turkish Government tasked the governors of the relevant provinces with improving its image vis-à-vis seasonal workers. A number of changes followed. In Ordu, the local authorities improved two tented camps by providing sanitation facilities, running water and a playground. Up to 2011, the seasonal workers had just camped anywhere. In another hazelnut-producing province, the town of Giresun built about 20 barracks equipped with washing and showering facilities and kitchens. Everything was very clean and there was also a playground for the little children. Since last year, banners have been put in both areas with the warning ‘Children under 16 may not work’.

While these are obviously welcome steps, we fear that the local authorities are now in denial about the extent to which child labour is still used. Every year, we follow up on the Children of the Season documentary, meeting governors or their representatives. Typically, they strongly deny that child labour goes on – while at the same time telling us about their campaign against child labour. It seems rather contradictory: if child labour is not a problem, why the need for the campaign? In reality, we know that child labour still exists because every year we stop at plantations at random. And we always hear children’s voices. Sometimes they are singing, sometimes they are complaining, sometimes they are giggling. But the children are always working.

Every year since 2010, we follow up on the Children of the Season documentary, meeting governors or their representatives in Turkey.

In March of this year, a conference took place in Giresun with the objective of raising awareness about child labour, informing plantation owners, and reaching agreement between hazelnut producers and government on how to end child labour for good. We were invited to show our documentary and to provide further information. However, the discussion that followed irritated the provincial governor, who claimed that child labour no longer existed in Giresun and that the children of the seasonal workers were in his beautiful province for holidays. We felt called upon to disagree, and the discussion ended with the governor walking out of the room.


Industry-led action

The conference organiser was Özer Akbalı, former chair of Giresun’s provincial Chamber of Agriculture (Ziraat Odası). Through his family in the Netherlands, he had seen the EénVandaag programme and was deeply shocked. He says:

Our view of children of seasonal workers, and even of our own children, has completely changed. We always say that our children are our future. We must protect them as best we can. We think about everything that has to do with children, but when it comes to work, we degrade them. We knew that there were problems in the agricultural sector with child labour, but we thought that the children only worked for short periods so to leave it be. After seeing your programme and documentary, the view of very many people on this issue, including my own, has changed.

Not only was Akbalı deeply shocked, he also took action straight away. In 2011 he declared his 200-hectare plantation free of child labour. He has also managed to persuade 89 other farmers from the same province to follow his example.

We are now more aware, look out better and are more selective. If we phone labour agents, we now say, ‘My friend, we do not want children under 16 any more.’ At first they would ask, ‘Mr Chairman, can’t you take even one?’ Then I would say, ‘No, not even one. Not even a half or a quarter. From now on, children will not work for us any more.’ But they would eventually agree, which just proved that it was possible all along.

He indicates the field behind him where hazelnuts are drying and says with pride, ‘Look! This harvest is completely free of child labour.’

Under the leadership of Akbalı, the Giresun Chamber of Agriculture started the ‘Laughing Children’ project. He explains:

We first started by informing farmers. There are so many agreements that say that we should not let children work. There are agreements in the Turkish constitution and in the UN treaties that Turkey has signed. But maybe we were not well informed about what the agreements said.

After that, about 5000 leaflets were distributed. ‘Then we placed advertisements on television, radio and in newspapers to draw attention to our project,’ he says.

In 2012, Akbalı built new living quarters for his own seasonal workers. There are separate rooms for men and women, bunk beds, showers, a kitchen and a shared dining and living area. He has high expectations of his project, which also organises activities for the children who travel with their families but are not allowed to work, including a photography project. The children were asked to photograph the hazelnut harvest of 2013 from their own perspective, and the photos will be used in an exhibition which will be part of the awareness campaign.

The farmers who joined the project are supposed to raise awareness among the plantations in their areas. Akbalı explains:

It is a community approach, because the Laughing Children project alone cannot reach enough people. In the future, the number of farmers taking part should grow from 89 to 8900, and then to 89,000. Only then can we keep ahead of the problem.


Pressure through buyers

In the meantime, Akbalı has entered into a collaboration with the processing factory, Noor, which pays the farmers an extra 4% if they guarantee that they supply child labour-free hazelnuts. With Turkish hazelnuts used in the products of major brands, consumer pressure is an obvious route towards tackling child labour and improving living and working conditions.

Unfortunately all the major hazelnut purchasers initially rejected the documentary. This is perhaps not surprising, as being associated with child labour is very damaging to one’s image. However, the approach of multinationals appears to be evolving. After a period of reflection, one of them commissioned an American NGO, the Fair Labor Association, to assess the situation of child labour in the hazelnut sector. What the company did with the results is still unclear.

The German supermarket chain ReWe, which also uses hazelnuts in its products, started a project for the children in seasonal workers’ tented camps in 2012. This year, in the Uzunisa tented camp, we saw a number of young people from the Hayata Destek (Support to Life) association, funded by ReWe, walking around and keeping the youngest children busy. The best-known international buyer of hazelnuts is Ferrero, which produces Nutella. On our visit this year we came across a number of researchers in Düzce who had been tasked by this Italian multinational to look into the situation of child labour in the hazelnut harvesting season.

While these are encouraging gestures, it remains to be seen if they will translate into effective and comprehensive action to tackle child labour and improve living conditions for the young children of seasonal migrant workers. We look forward to seeing what has changed when we return in 2014.