Updated: Apr 18, 2021
Forced labor, underpaid wages, factories collapsing... This was enough for Chinese, Indian or Bangladesh factories to acquire a questionable reputation and to scare away many fashion brands. Seeking a more ethical-looking alternative, they turned their eyes towards Europe, and in particular the Eastern and South-Eastern regions. There, they found rather cheap labor, yet qualified and experienced. Better still, they benefited from the reputation of Europe as a place of fair wages, decent working conditions, and high social rights standards.
Clean Clothes Campaign
Yet, the reality is far from being such. According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, Europe’s Sweatshops,“ many of the 1.7 million garment workers in the region (mostly women) live in poverty, face perilous work conditions, including forced overtime, and have accumulated significant debts.” They also report abusive treatment, unhygienic conditions of work, exposure to heat and chemicals. Most of the time, the employees feel powerless because complaints could easily lead to a relocation or a layoff.
One of the many examples took place in 2018 in Przeworsk, a city in the South East of Poland. During the summer, temperatures can reach 40° Celcius, but workers were not allowed to keep water with them for it was a risk of damage to the fabric. They were frequently denied permission to go to the bathroom forcing many to wear diapers. Seamstresses organized a strike to denounce their horrid work conditions, and some of them were dismissed. Since this particular factory provides fabric to one of the most popular Polish brands, Vistula, the social movement attracted the attention of the media. Still, the factory nevertheless remained open and likely maintained its inhumane practices.
Unattainable production goals and below subsistence levels salaries
On top of this, employers tend to be obsessed with productivity utilizing video surveillance systems to monitor their workers who are expected to achieve unreachable production quotas and are not paid accordingly.
When interrogated about this, factory owners respond by saying that lowering salaries and pressuring workers is their only option in order to remain competitive. Bertram Rollmann, the owner of Pirin-Tex (a major Bulgarian factory supplying Hugo Boss) has, over the past three years, lost 1500 of the 3500 employees. According to him, if the production capacities decrease, productivity must be compensated in another way. If not, he would lose his contracts to Turkey or Cambodia.
But isn’t the lack of workforce precisely a consequence of the low wages he imposes on his employees? Bulgarian fashion workers receive the minimum wages of 260 euros a month; when unions estimate a fair wage in that country should be 1,200 euros. According to Bettina Musiolek, from Clean Cloth Campaign, “when considering the living cost, salaries are lower than in Asia”. It is therefore not a surprise that since 1990, Bulgaria’s population decreased from 9 to 7 million. Most people moved to other European countries, in particular to Germany, in hope of better living standards.
An unsustainable economic system
In fact, whether it is in Bulgaria, Hungary, Ukraine, Serbia, or Slovakia the legal minimum wage is far below “the respective official poverty lines and subsistence levels for these countries”. And that is when fashion workers actually get the legal minimum wage, which is not the case for the majority of them in Ukraine et Serbia - including those of Geox, Benetton, and Esprit.
These countries attract global brands through low salaries, weak enforcement of the labor laws, restricted union activities, and preferential treatments for international corporations (in Serbia for instance, they are given cash grants when they open new production facilities). This strategy may lead to short-term profits, but it appears to be an unsustainable economic system that doesn’t benefit the local population and leads to mass emigration.
Wealthier European countries are not spared.
Several scandals were recently disclosed in Italy and in the UK. The main one revealed the working conditions of the Leicester garment industry, which mostly produces for the fast-fashion brand Boohoo. There, about 10 000 thousands of people continued working during the lockdown in unsafe conditions and being paid considerably less than the minimum wage (£3.50 an hour instead of the national minimum wage of £8.72).
30 percent of the Leicester garment industry workers are born outside the UK, and their immigration status often makes them vulnerable. Susan Harry, director of legal service at GMB Union underlines that "If people don't know their rights, they don't know that they can complain or know how to complain. And if you then factor into that lack of knowledge with the fact that many of these workers will not have English as their mother tongue then the conditions exist for unscrupulous people to exploit workers."
Activists have also pointed out the inaction of the successive governments, the lack of regulations, and the remarkably low rate of inspections of the Leicester factories. For Adam Mansel, chief executive of the UK Fashion and Textile Association, "There have been efforts in the past to shut down these factories, but unfortunately what happens is they operate under a phoenix system where they will close one day, and then open up under a different name the next day,"
Fast fashion has been pointed out, but similar schemes exist in the luxury industry
In southern Italy, some towns are an eldorado for cheap labor of quality. In Buonabitacolo, women work at home on high-end shoes - but for a pair of Salvatore Ferragamo retailing at 500 Euros, these women are paid between 50 cents and 1.50 euros, cash. Once they are done with their meticulous work, someone comes to pick them up in a transparent plastic bag. Nothing is official, nothing is declared and the branded tag is applied later.
When called out on these questions, brands claim to be unaware of the issues and blame their contractors. The truth is that the fashion industry - high luxury brands included - thrive on illegality, corruption, and hypocrisy. The label Made in Europe hence appears for what it is: an illusion destined to the consumers, hiding the lack of traceability of the fashion goods.
Footnotes and other links :
Enquête : les petites mains exploitées du made in Italy, article translated by Le Courrier International, Original article “Buonabitacolo : chi fa le scarpe a chi le cuce”, La Repubblica, Angelo Mastrandrea, March 25, 2019
Iris Favand is a fashion designer based in Paris. Before pursuing a fashion degree at Parsons, New York, she studied humanities and art history. Her practice is driven by her love of fashion history and by her convictions on gender equality.