AKCAKALE, Turkey — Like thousands of other Syrian refugees, Shakar Rudani worked last summer in Turkey’s Black Sea region, home to the largest concentration of hazelnut farms in the world. He arrived in August, expecting that he and his six sons, ages 18 to 24, would earn the equivalent of a few thousand dollars. He left in late September with little more than a firm resolution: to never return again.
The work was arduous and risky. Because the terrain is filled with steep inclines, his sons spent much of their time attached by ropes to rocks, a precaution against a potentially fatal fall. Worse, the pay was $10 a day, half the rate promised by the middleman who had pitched him the job.
“We made just enough to cover the cost of getting there and getting back,” said Mr. Rudani, a sun-baked 57-year-old who lives in a Turkish village on the Syrian border. “Plus our living expenses. We returned with nothing.”
About 70 percent of all hazelnuts come from Turkey, a bounty produced by some 600,000 tiny farms scattered throughout the verdant landscape that stretches along the country’s northern coast.
Much of the harvest winds up in beloved confections, like Nutella spread made by Ferrero, candy bars made by Nestlé and Godiva chocolates made by a Turkish company, Yildiz. Few consumers know that behind each of these treats is a crop that has long been notorious for its hazards and hardships, as well as the prevalence of child labor, a scourge the government has been trying to combat for years.
Now, a growing number of seasonal hazelnut workers are Syrian refugees, a cohort with a unique set of vulnerabilities. Few have work permits, meaning they lack legal protections.
Turkey’s Labor Code does not apply to agricultural businesses with fewer than 50 employees, so much of the policing of this crop falls to confectionery companies. Ferrero says it oversees a multipronged effort to prohibit child labor and set wage and safety standards. The privately held company — headed by Giovanni Ferraro, whose personal fortune has been reported by Forbes at $22.3 billion — is an empire built on hazelnuts. The company buys one third of Turkey’s hazelnuts. It has struggled, along with competitors, to ensure there isn’t a shadow over the crop.
Syrian refugees working on a farm in Adana in southern Turkey. About 200,000 of the country’s agricultural workers are refugees from Syria.CreditFurkan Temir for The New York Times
But comprehensive monitoring of Turkey’s hazelnut farms is an exceptionally elusive goal because they are vast in number and independent. Plus, the minimum wage, which nearly every farmer offers, won’t keep a family above the country’s poverty line. And that is before pay is whittled down by middlemen, who connect workers to farms and often pocket more than the standard 10 percent cut of wages.
For chocolate companies, all of this presents a conundrum. While other countries have tried to bolster their hazelnut production, Turkey remains the mother lode, and it is impossible to satisfy international demand without buying heavily here. But buying hazelnuts in Turkey means supporting a crop with glaring humanitarian flaws.
“In six years of monitoring, we have never found a single hazelnut farm in Turkey in which all decent work principle standards are met,” said Richa Mittal, the director of innovation and research for the Fair Labor Association, which has done fieldwork on Turkey’s hazelnut crop. “Across the board. Not one.”
‘They’d Never Find You’
Turkey became the planet’s hazelnut capital through luck and government intervention. The Black Sea region has the ideal mix of loamy soil, sunshine and rain. Starting in the late 1930s, the Republican People’s Party encouraged local farmers to plant hazelnut trees, both to lift the local economy and to reduce landslides.
Today, hazelnuts are just one of the crops that make agriculture 6 percent of Turkey’s economy. (Others include oranges, tea, cotton and tobacco.) About one-fifth of the country’s work force is in agriculture, including seasonal laborers who travel to different regions as various harvests begin. Roughly 200,000 are Syrian refugees.
Mr. Rudani and his sons are now part of this group. He was a farmer in his native country, growing wheat and cotton on a 37-acre plot. In January 2014, he fled his home with his family of 12 as Islamic State fighters approached. The black flag of the Islamic State would fly in his village for the next three years. A Kurdish militia group is now in control.
Akcakale, where they settled, abuts the Syrian border. “You see the green house at the top of that hill?” Mr. Rudani asked, pointing to a speck in the distance. “That was my house.”
Rolling prayer beads in his hand, Mr. Rudani spent the next few hours describing his tumultuous life. As he spoke, a procession of sons and cousins, all veterans of the hazelnut crop, stopped by.
Like roughly 3.4 million other Syrian refugees who have poured into Turkey since 2011, Mr. Rudani and his family have the tenuous-sounding status of “people under temporary protection.” Few work permits are granted to this group, and agriculture is one of the few sectors where work permits are not required.
His first encounter with the hazelnut crop, in the summer of 2017, was a short-lived fiasco. He and his sons drove north in a rented car to the Black Sea, an 800-mile journey that took 24 hours. When Mr. Rudani grasped how dangerous the work was, he decided that the money was not worth it. The next day, he and his sons drove home.
“I couldn’t believe the mountains,” he recalled. “It seemed like if you fell, they’d never find you.”
The next year, Mr. Rudani was more desperate for money, and a middleman got in touch to say rates in the summer of 2018 would be higher.
“He told my father that this year the farmers are paying around 80 to 100 Turkish lira a day,” said Muhammad Rudani, Mr. Rudani’s eldest son. “But when my father got there, he realized that all the supervisors were cheating people. One of them told my father, ‘We’ll give you 50 lira a day, and that’s it.’”
Mr. Rudani and his sons stayed.
Hazelnut harvesting is essentially divided into two tasks, collecting and hauling. The collectors grab and bag nuts, while the haulers transport the bags, each about 110 pounds, up and down mountains and onto trucks.
“The main problem is that there is nowhere to stand up,” said Abrahim Khalil, one of Mr. Rudani’s cousins. “The ground is so steep. You can never just stand up straight.”
The hours are also grueling, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on some farms. If you don’t work, you don’t get paid, making seven-day workweeks the norm.
Given the meager sums they earn, a lot of Syrian refugees in crops all over the country say they have little choice but to conscript their children. Nawwaf Ibrahim, a 48-year-old father of 10, was a taxi driver in Syria, a job that supported his family. Recently, he stood in the decaying house he rents near the southern city of Adana, shelter he can afford only because three of his teenage children work with him in the orange fields.
“People who don’t have enough family members to work are forced to live in plastic tents by the side of the road,” he said. “Can you imagine?”
That is a pressing question for a friend and neighbor, Yasin Al Mohammed, who once sold sheep in his native Syria. He is not strong enough to toil in the orange fields 10 hours a day, and with one exception, his eight children are either too ill or too young to work. When his lease expires in a few months, he will be homeless.
“It’s not just me,” Mr. Mohammed said. “A lot of families are doomed to the same fate.”
The Unregulated Middlemen
The difficulties of agricultural work are multiplied by the middlemen.
Known as dayibasi — pronounced die-ye-BASH-ee — Turkey’s middlemen are the least scrutinized and least visible operators in the farming system. Legally, they are required to have a primary school education and a permit that is renewed every three years. In practice, middlemen are unregulated and untrained.
The dayibasi often provide laborers with between-harvest loans that can result in a form of indentured servitude. More common, Syrians say, are lies about wages, which are typically handed over in end-of-harvest lump sums. Until then, laborers are paid just enough to cover food and rent, and given “business cards” — essentially an i.o.u.— for each day in the field.
Ostensibly, the system is designed to ensure loyalty, said Saniye Dedeoglu, a professor of labor economics at Turkey’s Mugla University.
“To form a working group, you need 15 to 20 people, and if someone is indebted to you, they are unlikely to leave for a different job,” she said. “But we have seen so many people in the field who have collected a bunch of business cards and the middleman has just disappeared.”
Some middlemen steal wages without bothering to vanish. Ismail Sulman, one of Mr. Rudani’s cousins, said that after he had worked a summer in the hazelnut crop with eight of his children, a dayibasi helped himself to an additional 3,000 Turkish lira — about $560 — of the 20,000 he was supposed to pay. Arguing was pointless.
“We didn’t have contracts,” Mr. Sulman said, “so we could not make a case to the police.”
Akcakale is home to dozens of middlemen. One of them, Ibrahim Ergun, sat recently in his somewhat dilapidated backyard, down the street from Mr. Rudani, and briefly explained his job.
“I’ve been doing this for 10 years,” Mr. Ergun, 71, said. “Usually I bring between 100 and 150 workers north with me.”
He was fully aware of his trade’s bad reputation.
“This is the reality,” he said. “Most middlemen take money and don’t give rights to their workers.”
Mr. Ergun hastened to add that he had never cheated any of his laborers. In fact, he said, he was once shorted 10,000 lira because a farmer failed to pay him.
“So,” he said, “I paid my workers out of my own pocket.”
The Source Map Mystery
Though Turkey’s hazelnuts bring in about $1.8 billion in a good year, the farms struggle for profitability. The most generous price-support programs have been phased out. The rugged terrain makes it nearly impossible to mechanize the harvest. And when farmers die, their land is often subdivided among their children, adding more patches to a quilt that looks crazy already. The size of the average farm is now just four acres.
Some farmers have little expectation that hazelnuts will earn real money. Sema Otkunc, a 70-year-old farm owner in Akcakoca, inherited her four-acre plot from her father and continues to cultivate it out of a sense of familial obligation.
“We’re at the mercy of the free market now,” she said. “The buyers say, ‘I will give this price,’ and there is nothing anyone can do about it.”
Ms. Otkunc is a minuscule part of an elaborate, multitiered system that she knows almost nothing about. She can’t name any of the players, other than her local buyer, or the final destination of her hazelnuts. The big confectioners that sit at the top of this supply chain tend to shroud their source map in secrecy.
No buyer is bigger or more secretive than Ferrero. It won’t name a single farm that its suppliers buy from, although simple arithmetic suggests that the answer is “most of them.”
The company, which also sells Kinder and Rocher chocolates, is the third-largest chocolate maker in the world, behind Mars and Mondelez and ahead of Nestlé and Hershey, according to Euromonitor International.
Giovanni Ferrero rarely grants interviews, or allows media visits to the company’s headquarters in Alba, Italy. A spokeswoman answered questions by email, sending a list of organizations that Ferrero has teamed with to promote what it calls the Ferrero Farming Values program.
“Ferrero is dedicated to providing its people with safe and decent working conditions,” she wrote in an email, “and we request that our independent farmers do the same.”
One of Ferrero’s partners is GIZ, a German development agency. In an email, a spokesman said it had provided advice to the company to help design and put into effect a system to track working and living conditions of seasonal workers.
It’s impossible to judge the success of GIZ’s efforts, or any Ferrero’s programs, because the company will not share any information about them, citing “restrictions under national privacy laws.”
Ms. Mittal of the Fair Labor Association said Ferrero would take the organization’s phone calls and participate in panel discussions about labor issues. It just won’t disclose where and how it buys hazelnuts.
“We know nothing about the findings of the programs they have in place,” she said. “We know nothing about the difference between certified and uncertified farms. We have no clue.”
The Fair Labor Association has a far better view of the company’s supply chain because it collaborated with it on a 31-month pilot program sponsored by the United States Department of Labor. At best, these efforts are a modest start, as Nestlé found in a 2017 survey published on its website.
More than 72 percent of workers reported that they had barely enough money to get by. Ninety-nine percent said they worked seven days a week. Child labor issues, the company stated, have “deteriorated in the last year” because of the war in Syria. Nestlé declined to comment for this article.
For refugees, Turkish agriculture is both a lifeline and an continuing trial. In the five years since he left his homeland, Mr. Ibrahim, the onetime taxi driver, has developed a new sense of what constitutes misfortune.
“We are lucky,” he said. “We can survive here. We will never be thieves. We will never have to beg on the streets.”
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