An investigation by the Clean Clothes Campaign in ten eastern EU member states, including Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia, showed that working conditions are sometimes worse than in China and Indonesia, busting myths about the ‘Made in Europe’ label.
Companies such as H&M, Zara, Hugo Boss, Adidas and Benetton pay their workers in Eastern Europe and Turkey the minimum legal wage, which is under the poverty threshold as defined by the European committee of social rights.
Moldova and Ukraine have the lowest net minimum wage, reaching €71 and €80 monthly respectively. Croatia has the ‘highest’ of the studied region with €308 per month, which is still “far below a living wage”, the study showed.
In China, the minimum salary is €175, and €196 in Malaysia.
“By profession I am an economist. But due to lack of job opportunities I have to sew. There, people work like robots. No rest. Nerves are ruined, eyes are spoiled,” testifies an anonymous Bulgarian worker on the campaign’s website.
Interviewed workers also complained about not being able to take days off work, or even get sick leave. Romanian workers admitted that despite the lowest minimum wage being so low, they still were not able to earn that sum, and were obliged to work overtime, the researchers write.
These workers are often forced to work up to 200 hours a month, the investigation found. A Bulgarian worker even said having worked “up to 400 hours monthly”.
“In practice, the legal minimum wage is often the ceiling instead of the bottom line for wages,” according to the Clean Clothes Campaign.
Three million garment workers
The Clean Clothes Campaign, made up of trade unions and NGOs in 16 European countries, found that formally and informally, three million workers are concerned by these dramatic working conditions. Considering the average of three persons per family in the region, this means that nine million people are dependent on the garment and shoe industry.
“Poverty wages in this sector do therefore have a direct impact on the livelihoods of these 9 million people and limit their chances to overcome poverty and poverty-related exclusion,” the report highlights.
No-pregnancy clause at Hugo Boss
For women, the working conditions get even worse, the research found.
On top of being often sexually harassed by their employers, a group of Turkish workers admitted having “signed a clause to not get pregnant in the next five years” in their contract with Hugo Boss.
“One of the interviewed workers stated that a colleague of hers decided to get an abortion because she feared losing her job due to the “violation” of this contract,” the study reads.
In many of those countries, women are the sole breadwinners in the family, having to take care of parents and their children in the same time. Many are also single mothers, and having a contract – any contract – is their only chance to get paid health insurance, as is the case in Macedonia.
“Testimonies of women show the triple squeeze, the triple burden they feel: having responsibility for the family in doing paid work, care-work and growing vegetables to subsidize their poverty wages,” the Clean Clothes Campaign writes.
The high dependence of women on their jobs is an extra opportunity for these employers to pressure female workers to agree to the worst labour conditions, they conclude.
A survey on four Hugo Boss production sites in Croatia and Turkey also showed that workers were denied the right to collective bargaining, workers were intimidated, and women were sexually harassed.
In an emailed response to EURACTIV, the company said it “rejects the allegation mentioned and a proof has never been shown to us. Hugo Boss is working with selected manufacturers, with whom the company has established trustful relationships for many years. For this reason, the companies are well-known to us. Compliance with our safety and social standards is monitored regularly in independent audits by external consultants as well as by our own Hugo Boss teams”.
In most of these countries, laws were put in place to make it more difficult for unions to be accepted while the media spread anti-union sentiments and employers exerted anti-union pressure “always justified by the difficult situation in the sector and international competition”.
“Unions are said to ruin companies […] and the government is interfering pro management,” the researchers found.
The study also showed widespread “wage theft practices” throughout the region, such as stealing leave days, cash payments, non–payment of social contributions, misuse of probation periods and apprenticeship schemes, arbitrary deduction for various reasons. There was also pay discrimination and minorities, refugees and migrants.
The Clean Clothes Campaign is calling on governments and on EU institutions “to immediately raise the minimum wage to at least 60% of the national average wage and hold multinational companies accountable for their actions along the supply chains and to make sure that brands respect human and labour rights”.