Dominique Soguel
Photo taken August 28 shows Cana Irtik (left), a Kurdish girl who has been cultivating crops across Turkey since age 13. Here she is pictured cleaning hazelnuts with her family in a government camp in Ordu Province, one of the main hazelnut producing regions of Turkey.

How Turkey is tackling child labor in hazelnut harvesting

Chocolate companies are wary of being cited for buying hazelnuts picked by underage migrant day laborers. Efforts to curb the practice in Turkey, the world's main producer, are bearing fruit, but some migrant families are resisting. 

After a morning of battering downpours, Cana Irtik takes advantage of a dry spell to peel a pile of hazelnuts with the help of her mother and sisters. She belongs to a migrant family that picks apples, peppers and tomatoes, depending on the season. It is a yearly journey across Turkey that lasts from April to November – and has cost her the time she needed for an education.

She is part of a labor force of thousands of seasonal day laborers that toils the lush land accompanied by their children. They are the invisible starting point of a complex supply chain for hazelnuts that culminates in chocolate products like Ferrero’s Nutella spread and countless other sweet treats.

Turkey takes a dim view of child labor in the fields of this picturesque corner of Black Sea coastline. Authorities are promoting educational summer activities for migrant children and they are fining farmers who hire underage workers to bring in the hazelnut crop. That could make life harder for Cana and her family, who have come nearly 500 miles from their hometown of Sanliurfa in southeast Turkey to join the annual harvest.

“We can work in all the fields of Turkey as children but when it comes to hazelnuts, it is getting harder,” says the 16-year-old. “There are more controls now.” 

Compared to other farm crops, there is greater scrutiny of hazelnut harvesting since neither Turkey nor the world’s chocolate giants want their goods associated with child labor. 

Most of the world’s hazelnuts come from Turkey: In 2014, it earned $2.3 billion from 252,000 tons shipped to 110 countries, according to the Turkish-based Hazelnut Promotion Group. One third of Turkey’s crop comes from Ordu Province.

But the industry is hard to regulate. Hazelnuts are grown on a dense patchwork of small family-run farms. Children have long worked in agriculture in Turkey and past government efforts to crack down have failed to curb the practice, particularly among seasonal workers. In Ordu, 12,000 out of 20,000 of these workers are primarily Kurdish migrants.

Since hazelnuts are harvested in summer, children are out of school. But the nature of migrant farm labor means that even when schools reopen, children are often in the fields or helping with other tasks. Families say that they enroll their kids in school when they return home at the end of the season. Still, a 2014 report by Support to Life, a Turkish humanitarian agency, found that about half of agriculture workers under the age of 18 had dropped out of school. 

In the ​Metip camp in the ​muddy outskirts of Fatsa, a Kurdish girl walks around ​in a T-shirt with a slogan against child labor as other kids sit in an informal classroom coloring. The kids roam between basic tents. Many of them are shoeless or partially dressed toddlers, reflecting the poverty of their parents. “Our goal is to fill the missing gaps in their education,” says Omer Dede, coordinator of a joint campaign by Turkey’s government and the International Labor Organization against child labor in hazelnut picking that entered its third year this season. 

Mr. Dede says farm owners and migrant workers who allow children under 16 to work in the fields are fined $75 each, roughly the equivalent of four days labor for the worker. A hotline allows people to report violations. He himself responded to 70 tip-offs this year, leading to 16 fines. Next year the campaign will also introduce spot checks to comb through more than 600,000 hectares (1.5 million acres) of hazelnut fields in Turkey, where the average farm is only one hectare.

Loopholes and labor inspections

While there are visible efforts to raise awareness against child labor in the hazelnut sector, legal loopholes remain. Crucially, Turkey’s labor code doesn’t protect children who work in enterprises with less than 50 workers. That means that most cases of child labor occur in areas that technically fall outside the jurisdiction of labor inspectors. Turkey, with a population of 75 million, has roughly 1,000 inspectors.  

Poverty is the main driver of child labor. Farmers say children aren’t as good as adults at picking or peeling nuts. But to parents they represent an extra pair of hands. “Generally the people who work here are very poor so they want their children to work in the fields,” says Fatih Istekli, a summer school teacher in the government-run program. “When we first started teaching, the families were not comfortable leaving their children behind but now they start to trust us which allows us to take care of their education.”

But violations remain relatively easy to pull off. Not all families live in one of the four government-administered camps in the region. Many instead stay in roadside temporary tent and caravan settlements or on the grounds of the hazelnut farms. And even in the government camps, it’s possible to meet families that still send children to the fields. “We all work,” says Hava Gezer, an aging woman with sun-bleached tresses tucked into a red scarf. “Men, women and children.”

Ms. Gezer is part of an extended family of over 70 members that travels every year to pick hazelnuts along the Black Sea. Every morning, middlemen known as manavs take them by minibus to the fields ready for picking. The children are mostly in school rather than working, but teenagers are expected to lend a hand.

Derya Gezer, a relative, says her 14-year-old daughter works eight-to-nine hour shifts alongside her father. “They work for us to survive,” Derya says standing outside a soaked tent with her younger children. “Our lives are very hard.”

Violations are hard to track

Local officials are keen to highlight the progress made here, pointing to improved sanitary conditions and access to healthcare and education in the government-run camps. But they admit it’s hard to gauge the true extent of child labor. “We don’t have a number for the violations,” says Etam Kibar, head of the chamber of agriculture in Fatsa. “The producers do not want this to happen but you cannot always prevent it. Families come to the fields with their children.”

A 2014 assessment conducted by the Fair Labor Organization in the hazelnut producing regions of Sakarya, Duzce, and Ordu found that as many as one in ten workers were children. Based on interviews with 535 workers, it documented the presence of 46 child workers under age 15 in the hazelnut regions. The Nestle-commissioned report also identified a total of 83 young workers, between 15 and 17 years of age. 

The 15-to-17 year-old group often works the same hours as adults and perform “similar hazardous and strenuous tasks, such as carrying heavy sacks of hazelnuts weighing up to 80 kilos [about 170 pounds].” Labor contractors, the assessment found, bring entire families to the farm. Once there, neither the contractors nor the farmers verify their ages. 

Another study in Turkey estimates there could be up to 128,571 child laborers in the hazelnut sector alone. For its part, the ILO puts the number of children between 6 and 17 working in Turkey at 893,000, mostly in agriculture. Of this, nearly 300,000 are aged 14 to 16. 

'Every day is money'

In the Black Sea, many of the farms are mom and pop operations that offer either a primary or supplemental income. Even in smaller plots, the large volume of nuts – each tree can carry 22 pounds of nuts in its foliage – means outside help is needed. Hazelnuts are picked directly from the tree or collected from the ground, then laid out in the sun to dry.

Village head Fatih Arslan, who hosts a migrant Kurdish family in his verdant hazelnut acres tucked into a sharp incline, says most farmers prefer not to have children on the fields because the quality of their work is inferior to that of an adult and not worth paying a full day’s rate. He describes the fines introduced in 2011 as "very effective" and insists that children no longer work on his farm.

While laborers in the past may have refused to work without their children, now farmers have reason to stand their ground.

“The children want to come and the families want to bring them to collect hazelnuts,” he says. “They are coming from very far away and every day is money. The families think that since the children are here they should be working.” 

Mussa Cifici, a native of Sanliurfa Province who works in Mr. Arslan’s farm along with his family, agrees but insists the problem is not the economy of the northern Black Sea but the lack of one in the southeast. “Before the fines our children would also work but now we see better,” says Mr. Cifici. “If the conditions were better in our hometown we wouldn’t travel all over Turkey to get money. This is not a life.” 

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