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The belief that “made in Europe” equals “fairly made” is a myth that needs to be shattered, according to a report from the Clean Clothes Campaign, an alliance of organizations in 15 European countries dedicated to improving working conditions in the global garment and sportswear industries. Published Tuesday, Stitched Up: Poverty Wages for Garment Workers in Eastern Europe and Turkey writes that worker exploitation, poverty wages, forced overtime, and life-threatening conditions aren’t problems endemic not only to Asia, but the garment industry as whole. Even countries in the European Union can function as “cheap labor sewing backyard[s]” for the high street, says Bettina Musiolek, one of the authors of the report. “We have come to expect that garment workers in Asia are being exploited with low wages and poor working conditions but what this report shows is that there are no good guys,” she adds.
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After interviewing 300 workers in ten countries—nine post-socialist European countries, plus Turkey—researchers discovered that nearly all those producing clothes for major retailers such as Adidas, Benetton, H&M, and Zara, and along with luxury brands like Hugo Boss and Prada, received wages below the poverty line. In fact, with many of the legal minimums covering only between 14 percent (Bulgaria, Ukraine, Macedonia) and 36 percent (Croatia) of a “living wage,” many workers have to resort to subsistence agriculture, a second job, or loans just to survive.
“This research shows that on our own doorstep, European garment workers are working long hours for wages that cannot sustain even their most basic of needs,” says co-author Christa Luginbühl. “Complex and opaque supply chains are not an excuse for denying people their basic right to a living wage. While brands such as Zara and H&M enjoy rising profits even during the crisis, working conditions in the production countries of the researched region have deteriorated particularly since 2008-9.”
DOING THE MATH
The Clean Clothes Campaign, together with trade unions and workers across the region, are calling on brands and retailers to work only with countries that provide a basic net wage—that is, without overtime or bonuses—of at least 60 percent of the national average wage. Buying prices should be based on these numbers and allow for wage hikes, the group says.
Both the home states of these multinational companies and the European Union have a duty to protect the human and labor rights of their workers, it adds. Brands and retailers also have the responsibility to pay for their products the full price, one that includes a wage that workers and their families can subsist on. Above all, the campaign says, brands and retailers have the responsibility not to take advantage of their purchasing power or weak state implementation of labor rights.
“We call on the direct employers of the three million garment workers [in Bulgaria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Georgia, Macedonia, Moldova, Romania, Slovakia, Turkey, and Ukraine] to respect their national labour law and stop wage theft practices immediately,” the report concludes.