Fashion Victims: Even in EU, Garment Workers Face Tough Conditions

Women in Romania and Bulgaria endure low pay, long hours and gruelling work to make clothes for luxury Western brands.

This article is also available in: Shqip Български Ελληνικα Македонски Română Bos/Hrv/Srp

Illustration by Andrei Runcanu

Calafat, southern Romania, 7 a.m. Hundreds of clothing factory workers crowd around a makeshift market to stock up on supplies before their shift — crackers, crisps and sodas are piled on the bonnets of two minivans. More and more people arrive, by bus or on foot across a long motorway bridge.

The Italian-owned knitwear factory, Maglierie Cristian Impex, is the biggest employer in the area. It has produced clothes for big names such as Kenzo, Escada, Marc O’Polo, Faconnable and Inditex, the Spanish-based giant whose brands include Zara and Massimo Dutti. According to a local newspaper story featuring an interview with the factory manager, it has also worked for Hugo Boss and Pierre Cardin.

Many workers do not want to talk to a reporter, saying they fear losing their jobs. Others mutter as they pass that they have not received their salaries. Things are bad, they say. “Help us if you can,” says more than one.

Workers stock up on snacks before starting their shift at the Maglierie Cristian factory in Calafat, southern Romania in July this year. Photo: Laura Stefanut.

“Work, work, work — but no pay,” complains one worker, 34-year-old Cristina (a pseudonym to protect her identity). About a dozen current or former workers at the factory told the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN, they were not paid on time. Several said they received wages only once every two or three months last year.

Activists and media outlets have railed against the plight of garment workers in recent years, often focusing on Asia. But even inside the European Union, in Romania and Bulgaria, workers in factories endure low wages, long hours and arduous conditions to make clothes for major fashion companies, including luxury brands.

Non-governmental organisations such as the Fair Wear Foundation and the Clean Clothes Campaign are demanding that brands take full responsibility for their production chains, with decent pay and conditions for all the workers involved.

Factory owners say they face intense pressure from brands to keep costs low. The workers, who are overwhelmingly women, are often hired on the legal minimum wage of a couple of hundred euros a month and may earn even less. They can wait months to get their pay, which is far below the ‘living wage’ in their nations.

From late January to mid-July, Cristina says she was paid just twice, a total of around 1500 lei (€340) for half a year’s work. “Women go and start crying in front of the chief, saying ‘please give me my money, because I can’t feed my children’,” Cristina says at her home in a village about 10 km from the factory.

Cristina shares a small two-room concrete house with her husband, son and mother-in-law. She is the only family member in full-time employment. She considers herself luckier than many colleagues at the factory because she has no bank loans to pay off and lives in the countryside, where she grows her own food.

Striking statement

In April 2014, more than 300 employees at the Maglierie Cristian factory staged a wildcat strike, complaining their salaries were late and fearing they would not even be able to give their families a decent meal for Easter.

Cristi Deseanu, 29, one of the strikers, says people were eventually paid. But, he says, he and other vocal protesters were fired.

In a brief telephone conversation, a senior company official told BIRN that Deseanu quit his job. But company papers show that the firm dismissed him, based on an internal disciplinary finding that he had taken part in an unauthorised strike and brought the company into disrepute.

“The poor things drop like flies,”

– Calafat deputy mayor Dorel Mituletu on factory workers struggling with hot conditions in summer

Deseanu worked as a mechanic at the plant, programming and maintaining machinery. He says he had an official salary of around €250 per month but did not always receive the entire sum, especially in winter, when the factory had fewer orders. Some months he earned around just €150, according to pay slips he provided.

“My salary there didn’t offer me the chance to start a family of my own,” says Deseanu. He has since found a job at another factory — 250 km away from his previous home and workplace in Calafat.

The Calafat factory is majority-owned by Enzo Mantovani, the founder of a luxury cashmere brand, and his two sons, Cristian and Gianluca. The latter is also the chief executive of the Romanian business, which posted a turnover of more than €8.3 million in 2014, according to the Ministry of Public Finances.

It is among the biggest clothing factories in Romania, employing around 1,000 people. It advertises itself as among the largest clothing factories in Romania, with “a good reputation at home and abroad” and a philosophy of “absolute customer satisfaction”. It reported having around 900 employees in 2014.

BIRN has tried repeatedly over several months to obtain comment from the Romanian company, including its response to the specific allegations contained in this story. A BIRN reporter has gone to the factory gate, telephoned the firm numerous times, submitted questions via email and contacted Cristian Mantovani via Facebook. But no comment has been forthcoming beyond a few words on Deseanu’s departure.

Inditex said last September that its social audits had found the plant complied with its Code of Conduct. In late January this year, however, Inditex said the factory was now “under a correction plan”. It did not specify details of the plan.

“In the following weeks, the audit teams will carry out another social audit of this supplier. The supplier will then receive either an authorization to continue supplying Inditex or it will be definitely blocked,” the company said in a statement.

The other brands mentioned in connection with the factory did not respond to email or telephone requests for comment or did not answer the questions they were asked.

‘Breath of life’

Catalin Mohora, an inspector at the Labour Inspectorate in Dolj county, which includes Calafat, says it can be legal for an employer to pay less than the minimum wage. In certain situations, such as low demand for its products, the employer can cut working hours and decrease pay accordingly.

There is also no legal punishment for not paying salaries on time, according to the Labour Inspectorate. If salaries are late, inspectors must first ask the employer to make the payments and can only impose fines if the firm does not comply after that.

Mohora says Maglierie Cristian is one of the better employers in the county. Some companies, he says, try to push the legal boundaries to avoid paying wages and taxes — for example by modifying contracts after they have been signed, or getting employees to work overtime without extra pay.

Calafat, a town of around 17,000 people on the banks of the Danube, became an industrial centre under the rule of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. But few of its factories survived the switch to capitalism in the 1990s.

The town’s deputy mayor, Dorel Mituletu, sits at his desk beside large flags of Romania and the EU planted on the floor. He says Calafat struggles to attract investors and the Maglierie Cristian factory is its “breath of life”.

“No one can afford to get on the wrong side of someone who, one way or another, provides jobs to 1,000 people,” he says.

“If they leave, you are left with a major social problem.”

Calafat’s deputy mayor, Dorel Mituletu, in his office in June 2015. Photo: Laura Stefanut

Mituletu admits that working in the factory is “an exhausting job for the women”, particularly in summer when it gets hot inside, causing some workers to faint.

“The poor things drop like flies,” Mituletu says.

In July last year, Cristina says she saw three women in her section become unwell or collapse due to the heat. She remembers an Italian supervisor laughing at them and saying he would have to improvise a cemetery in the back yard if women continued to drop. “He just felt like joking,” says Cristina with resignation.

The factory has air conditioners, but they are not enough to compensate for the heat generated by the machines and irons, both Cristina and Cristi Deseanu say.

Fashion brands sometimes send staff to check on the factories they use. In the summer of 2015, a representative of Lacoste visited the Calafat factory, which had been working round the clock to make striped sweaters for the French brand, Cristina says. Workers were organised into two 12-hour shifts.

“We worked like crazy and we asked each other how much longer we could go on like this,” Cristina remembers.

The Lacoste man started asking around about working conditions, according to Cristina. One department chief was worried she had said too much and could be fired, Cristina recalls. She says workers are instructed not to complain to outsiders.

BIRN contacted Lacoste to ask about its representative’s visit. The company acknowledged receipt of the query but did not respond to BIRN’s questions, despite repeated follow-up requests.

According to official statistics, around 240,000 people work in apparel manufacture in Romania, the second biggest export sector after the automotive industry, while in Bulgaria the industry employs 105,000 people in 4,500 companies.

New start turns to nightmare

About a year ago, Ioana Ganea, 45, and her friend Carmen Ciobanu, a 39-year-old mother of three, thought jobs at a local garment factory were the solution to some tough money problems at home. Both women live in the small village of Sultana, about 90 km from Bucharest.

Ciobanu’s husband, a fisherman, had been laid off. The main source of income for the family was Ciobanu’s mother, who worked as a cleaner in Italy.

“Even if you live in the countryside, you still need to pay bills and buy things… (that) you can’t grow in your back yard,” Ciobanu says.

Ganea was working eight hours a day at a clothing factory in the capital and spending another four hours on buses getting to and from work, leaving little time to take care of her 72-year-old mother.

Ganea smokes anxiously and tears come to her eyes when she talks about her mother.  She is sitting with Ciobanu at a table in the garden of her home. The table is like the house — old, small and slanting.

Ioana Ganea (right) and her mother in the garden of their home in the Romanian village of Sultana. Photo: George Popescu

Ciobanu encouraged Ganea to quit her job in Bucharest so they could both go and work at the Zendoo Style factory in Calarasi, about 20 km from the village. The factory’s manager, Vasilica Sterschi, says it has made clothes for various Western firms.

Ganea and Ciobanu began working at the factory in January 2015 and say their hopes of a better life were soon dashed.

The volume of work required was impossible and pressure was intense, the women say. Workers were instructed not to talk to each other and only to go to the bathroom in an emergency. Their boss would tell them they were not working hard enough.

“She was shouting all the time faster, faster, faster. Can you imagine what it feels like to listen to this as if you were a slave?” complains Ganea.

“Customers have this preconception — ‘Made in Europe, it must be fair’… But that’s not true.”

 – Corina Ajder, researcher.

Contacted by phone, manager Sterschi tells BIRN she could not pay salaries for insufficient work and could not accept “I can’t work harder” as an excuse.

“If (the worker) comes to work and sits in the toilet or replies ‘I can’t work harder’, I can’t include that in their salaries,” says Sterschi.

Carmen Ciobanu in her home in the village of Sultana, Romania. Photo: George Popescu

Ganea, Ciobanu and about a dozen other women decided to quit by no longer turning up for work. But, Ganea and Ciobanu say, Sterschi refused to accept their resignations, threatening to sue them unless they changed their minds.

BIRN has spoken to two other women who say they faced the same reaction when trying to resign from the factory. Sterschi initially says she never intended to sue workers for quitting, but later, in an interview in her office, declared she would sue the women who had talked to BIRN for breaking confidentiality agreements.

Ganea believed she was owed back pay and took her case to the local Labour Inspectorate, which concluded she should be paid about €50 for leave she had not taken.

Zendoo Style, the firm that owns the Calarasi factory, reported a turnover of about €370,000 in 2014 and declared having 82 employees.

Sterschi said she paid all her workers twice the minimum wage and did business fairly.

But the contracts of two former workers at the factory show they received only the minimum wage, around €160 net per month.

Romania’s Labour Inspectorate said inspections between 2013 and 2015 found the firm did not respect the law on salary payments, working hours, overtime and rest time for workers. It was fined after failing to rectify these issues, the inspectorate said.

In May last year, Sterschi and the factory’s owner, her husband Ion, were convicted of tax evasion and given a suspended sentence of six months in prison, according to publicly available court documents. Asked via telephone about this conviction, Sterschi replied: “Mind your own business. Please stop calling me because I am going to sue you.” Further requests for comment were sent via email, to which she did not respond.

Zendoo Style was declared bankrupt in September 2015, according to the text of a court decision, but Sterschi says she continues to be involved in the garment business.

Low pay and poor conditions ‘endemic’

The problems documented by BIRN are commonplace across the region, according to research by non-governmental organisations.

A report on eastern Europe and Turkey published in 2014 by the Clean Clothes Campaign, an international group that lobbies for better working conditions in the sector, found that poverty-level wages, dangerous working conditions and forced overtime were “endemic throughout the garment industry”.

“Customers have this preconception — ‘Made in Europe, it must be fair’,” says Corina Ajder, a researcher for the organisation. “But that’s not true.”

The group found that the national minimum wages often paid in the garment industry were below the poverty line in all the countries they surveyed — and far below the estimated subsistence minimum for a family of four. In both Romania and Bulgaria, the minimum wage was only about 20 per cent of this ‘living wage’.

Work Experience: Undercover in a factory

I wanted to experience what it’s like to work in the clothing industry, so I went to a factory in the city of Timisoara that was advertising for employees and got a trial in the printing department.

At 6 a.m. workers were already at the factory. They lose an hour’s pay if they clock in late, a male employee told me.

A female supervisor gave me a tour of the department. A strong chemical smell filled the air but the supervisor reassured me: the factory had shifted to water-based colours, which are not harmful. But she later told me that as a worker I would receive one bottle of milk per day – which is usually given to workers exposed to harmful environments, including with high toxicity, according to the law. The only difficult part of my work, she said, would be the heat as the air conditioning had to stay off — to preserve the freshly printed colours.

I had to arrange pieces of cloth on top of a paper pattern spread out on a large table. It was like doing a large-scale jigsaw puzzle. I laid out patterns for shorts and then for a shirt. The arrangements went into a large printing machine to add logos and other design elements. Then they were taken upstairs for sewing. I and the other workers did this over and over again. By around 9 a.m., the heat in the room was already wearying, and I could see the faces of my colleagues turning red. By 11 a.m., when we got our single break of 20 minutes, I felt drained. My vision was blurry from focusing on the fine lines as I aligned the fabric with the pattern. My neck was numb from leaning over all the time. My legs hurt from being constantly on my feet.

I would receive the minimum salary for a full time job: around €220 per month, of which I would get to keep about €165 after paying taxes.

One worker warned me that things are not as great as they seem at the beginning. For me, they didn’t seem great to start with. I met three workers who told me that the room where I worked fills up with steam from the overheating printing machines during the evening shift. A supervisor insulted them on a regular basis, they claimed, and the money they earned was not enough to support their families so they had to work exhausting overtime.

I did not encounter any of the abuses I had heard about in other factories in Romania and Bulgaria. But just having a ‘normal’ job in the clothing industry seemed hugely taxing and the money barely enough to survive.

Laura Stefanut

Fashion brands and factories sometimes commission social audits, which are meant to check that working conditions meet international standards. Romanian auditor Rodica Soldea says there are not enough of these inspections in eastern Europe.

But audits are no panacea. Social auditors had inspected two factories in Bangladesh and Pakistan where fires killed hundreds of garment workers in 2012.

Experts say that these audits can identify severe abuses, such as the use of child labour, but it is harder to detect less obvious problems such as the late payment of wages or a failure to pay overtime. Auditors only spend a couple of hours to a couple of days at the factories and workers may be afraid to speak out.

Trade unionists argue that the best way to improve conditions is for workers to join their ranks. But unions do not have much clout in either Romania or Bulgaria. In Romania, they were weakened further by legislation passed in 2011.

Factory owners in Romania and Bulgaria say there is little they can do to increase wages when the brands exert such pressure to keep costs low.

“They just want to put the prices down, down, down and that’s it,” says Radina Bankova, president of the Bulgarian Association of Apparel and Textile Producers and Exporters.

In some cases, however, workers have managed to organise themselves and press for better conditions.

The employer’s story

In 2007, workers went on strike at the Pirin-Tex factory in the Bulgarian town of Gotse Delchev, in a mountainous area near the Greek border. They demanded an extra €100 a month in wages.

Bertram Rollmann, the factory’s German owner, was shocked. Since taking over the plant 14 years earlier, he felt he had worked hard to maintain good relations with the workers. Wages went up every year and were above average for the sector, he says.

“What did I do wrong?” Rollmann, 59, remembers wondering.

Rollmann is a veteran of the garment industry. His grandfather was a tailor, as were his mother and father. His father owned a clothing factory in Germany “during the golden age of the industry”, as Rollmann describes the 1970s and 1980s, when the brands had different priorities.

“In that period, it was more about demand for capacity and respectable quality… and the brands did not ask so much of the price,” he says in his factory office.

In the early 1980s, his family opened a factory in Greece and Rollmann ran it. By the middle of the decade, the market became more and more about generating bigger profits, Rollmann says, and the collapse of communism in 1989 opened up access to a new, cheap workforce in eastern Europe.

Rollmann foresaw that a huge wave of outsourcing would follow and decided to head for the region himself. He found cooperative local authorities in Gotse Delchev, a town of about 20,000 people, and opened his factory in 1993. The business grew to employ more than 2,000 workers and is the biggest clothing factory in Bulgaria.

The factory is located in a broad two-storey building, with production halls the size of more than three football fields (30,000 square meters). The plant has a training department, where people learn how to sew and are also taught subjects such as foreign languages and history. There are laboratories for creating colours for fabrics, rooms for recycling and a crèche.

Bertram Rollmann in his Pirin-Tex factory in Bulgaria. Photo: Laura Stefanut

But in 2007 the workers felt they weren’t getting a good enough deal. Their strike was prompted, at least in part, by Bulgaria’s recent admission to the European Union. They felt they should now be getting paid more like western Europeans.

Even a trade union leader thought their demands were unrealistic. Dimitar Tabakov, president of the light industry section at the CITUB trade union federation, remembers telling them so in 2007. They accused him of taking sides with their employer.

But Rollmann went to his clients, the big brands, and asked them to give him better prices for his products. As a result, he says, he lost his biggest customer, which was also one of his oldest, and accounted for 25 per cent of the factory’s production.

Other brands, however, agreed to pay more. The strike ended after 17 days, when Rollmann was able to offer an increase of around €60 to salaries. Currently, the average salary in his factory is around €415, he says.

Rollmann believes conditions and wages are slowly improving in the sector, as campaigns and media coverage of tragedies such as those in the garment factories in Asia have led to brands facing pressure from consumers.

“They are reacting now,” Rollmann says. “The public mind-set is changing.”

Note: BIRN sought comment from all the fashion brands named in this story, including asking them to state whether they worked with the factories mentioned. The comments of those brands that responded have been included. The others did not respond.

Laura Stefanut is a freelance journalist based in Romania. This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, supported by the ERSTE Foundation and Open Society Foundations, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.


This article is also available in: Shqip Български Ελληνικα Македонски Română Bos/Hrv/Srp