Child labour: the Benetton case in Turkey

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On October 1998, an Italian newspaper alleged the exploitation of child labour in a Turkish plant working for the Benetton group. Italian trade unions, together with their Turkish counterparts, intervened and concluded an agreement which forbids the use of child labour in the Turkish textile plants working for the Benetton group.

On 16 October 1998, an important first agreement against the use of child labour was signed in Turkey. The agreement arose from alleged exploitation of child labour at Bermuda, a company which produces products bearing the Benetton trademark on behalf of Bogazici Hazir Giylim, a large textile company, which is a licensee of the Benetton trademark in Turkey. The agreement was negotiated by a delegation composed of representatives of the Italian textiles sector trade unions - Filta-Cisl, Filtea-Cgil and Uilta-Uil- and of the Turkish trade unions, Turk-Is and Disk-Tekstil, along with the Benetton group and the Turkish company Bogazici.

The agreement, which covers all 100 or so supplier companies of the Turkish group, is a code of conduct on "principles for clean production". In an attempt to eradicate the violation of basic workers' rights. the code of conduct forbids: the use of child labour; the use of hidden and undeclared employment; and discrimination based on race, religion, ideology, language, sex or nationality.

All the signatory parties to the code of conduct believe that it sets an example for all other international situations of this kind. They hope for the establishment of an international independent authority able to monitor the situation efficiently, because in many countries regulations against child labour are almost non-existent.

Adriano Linari, the national secretary of Filta-Cisl responsible for the Benetton group, stated that the adoption of this code of conduct is extremely important because it represents "a concrete effort to eradicate the sad phenomenon of child labour in the textile sector in Turkey ... When we came to Instanbul our intention was not to attest the presence or the absence of child labour in the companies working for the Benetton group but to create the necessary conditions to fight this terrible phenomenon. I hope that an independent body will be soon charged with monitoring child labour in Turkey."

The agreement marked the end of an international case which received considerable media attention worldwide.

The story was broken by the major Italian newspaper, Corriere della Sera, which published the report of a visit to the Bermuda group of one of its journalists, Riccardo Orizio. Mr Orizio, introducing himself as an Italian employer, succeeded in visiting the group's factories and in taking pictures of children aged between nine and 13 years busy at work. Ihsan Karatas, a member of the Turkish textile workers' trade union (Tekstil iscileri sendikasi) who had previously seen children leaving Bermuda plants after the night shift, helped the Italian journalist in his reporting. Mr Karatas reported the findings to his union, which denounced the company for exploiting child labour. According to Mr Karatas, children work up to 12 hours a day for a monthly wage of about ITL 132,000, a third of an adult worker's pay.

Suleyman Celebi, secretary general of the Turkish textile workers' trade union, alleged that almost all Turkish companies in the sector exploit child labour as, he claimed, do important multinationals such as Levi, Lee Cooper, Adidas, Reebok and Nike (reported in Panorama, 22 October 1998).

The case shocked international public opinion, because the company that exploited child labour was a supplier of Benetton, one of Italy's most important companies and probably the best known worldwide. Italian public opinion was particularly shocked because Benetton has always made a priority of social commitment, especially in favour of minors. Benetton commercials by photographer Oliviero Toscani are famous all over the world because they denounce social marginalisation and racism.

After the article published by Corriere della Sera, the Benetton group immediately suspended its contract with the Bogazici group. The Italian company said that it was unaware of the specific situation in the Turkish company. It also declared that all suppliers and licensee companies located in countries which cannot import textile products from Italy are obliged to sign an agreement that force them to respect national laws on employment.

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