Ahmed, a Syrian refugee who asked that we not use any identifying details out of fear of repercussion, has worked in the industry for a year recruiting clients and then shepherding them through the process. He’s the one who answers their late-night calls with questions about the operation and he translates between clients and Turkish staff once they arrive. He says Syrian employees are often exploited by their employers who see them as disposable. “They will have you work 10 hours each day and only give you one day off [per week]” he says. “Still you have the phone and you have to work, so you are not off. If you do not answer the phone, then you will receive a punishment. Maybe they will cut from your salary, maybe they will cut from your off days.”
Mahmoud, who also asked to remain anonymous, is another Syrian refugee and veteran of the Istanbul hair-transplant industry. He has worked at three different companies calling clients and says the intense competition between clinics means that employers are constantly searching for ways to cut costs—often at the price of their employees.
For example, clinics often pay poverty-level base salaries and offer commissions on top of that—but then set unreasonable sales quotas that make it impossible to earn any commissions. “I know one company, where if you don’t reach your quota they will add it onto the next month,” says Mahmoud. “I saw one guy who had a $120,000 quota. He couldn’t leave the job because he has a family, so he is working on the basic salary which is 1,500 Turkish Lira”—about $400 a month.
Hair follicles that have been removed and are awaiting transplantation at the Clinic Expert in Istanbul.
Mahmoud says the situation is especially difficult for Syrian refugees, many of whom do not have official working permits and therefore no legal recourse if they are treated badly by employers. Because it is difficult for Syrians to find employment in Turkey, he says, many are afraid to leave their jobs despite long work hours and low pay.
Nicholas Grisewood, a specialist in the crisis migration branch of the International Labor Organization (ILO), says many of the issues described by Syrian refugees in the hair transplant industry are common to the many Syrian refugees throughout Turkey. “Refugees are willing to accept conditions that Turkish people are not willing to. They will put themselves at risk for the simple reason of survival,” he explains. While the ILO has not studied the hair transplant industry in particular, Grisewood says they have observed that many refugees are underpaid, work long hours, and do not have work permits.
Emre Eren Korkmaz, a researcher at the International Migration Institute, concurs. “As a consequence of bureaucratic process and conditions to obtain work permits,” he says, “Syrian refugees are generally employed in informal economy which means that they are not registered to the social security system and they cannot enjoy their basic rights and liberties such as freedom of association, health and safety, working hours, minimum wage.”