Bulgaria, Macedonia and Romania have lower legal minimum wages than China

Bulgaria, Macedonia and Romania have lower legal minimum wages than China

As brands and retailers increasingly explore options for sourcing closer to home, it is perhaps inevitable that labour rights activists should now turn their attention to pay and conditions for garment workers in eastern Europe and Turkey.

The idea that more expensive clothing or items 'Made in Europe' are produced in better conditions is "just a myth" according to labour rights campaigners, who are accusing brands such as Hugo Boss, Zara, H&M, Adidas and Benetton of paying "poverty wages" to garment workers in eastern Europe and Turkey.

While they stop short of suggesting that labour laws are being violated, they are calling on brands and retailers to ensure all those who work in their supply chains are paid a living wage.

And as a first step they want to see workers in eastern Europe receive a basic net wage of at least 60% of the national average wage. Buying prices must be calculated on this basis and allow for these wage hikes, they say.

The latest in a series of reports by the Clean Clothes Campaign is based on research including interviews with over 300 garment workers in 10 countries across the post-socialist Eastern Europe (Romania, Ukraine, Turkey, Bulgaria, Croatia, Slovakia, Georgia, Macedonia (FYROM), Bosnia & Herzegovina and Moldova) and Turkey.

The report claims these countries function as the "cheap labour sewing backyard" for Western European fashion brands and retailers.

Indeed, "Stitched Up - Poverty wages for garment workers in Eastern Europe and Turkey," suggests that nearly all workers producing clothes for major European retailers are paid below the poverty line, and many have to rely on overtime, subsistence agriculture or a second job just to survive.

Legal minimum wages only cover between 14% (Bulgaria, Ukraine, Macedonia) and 36% (Croatia) of a basic living wage, it says. In Georgia, Moldova, Romania and the Eastern Anatolian region of Turkey, minimum wages are below 20% of an estimated living wage.

Recommended wage increases for researched countries:

Country Legal minimum net wage in euro 60% of average national wage in euro Estimated minimum living wage (2013)
BiH (RS) 189 Euro 259 Euro 767 Euro
Bulgaria 139 Euro 245 Euro 1.022 Euro
Croatia 308 Euro 435 Euro 862 Euro
Georgia 52 Euro 196 Euro 518 Euro
Macedonia 111 Euro 208 Euro 790 Euro
Moldova 71 Euro 122 Euro 378 Euro
Romania 133 Euro 218 Euro 710 Euro
Slovakia 292 Euro 406 Euro 1.360 Euro
Turkey 252 Euro 401 Euro 890 Euro
Ukraine 80 Euro 167 Euro 554 Euro

Source: Clean Clothes Campaign

The report also points out that as of 2013, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Romania have lower legal minimum wages than China; while Moldova and Ukraine have lower legal minimum wages than Indonesia.

Europe's doorstep
Around half of the garments imported into the EU27 are produced within geographical Europe.

"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 Christa Luginbühl, one of the writers of the report.

"Working conditions in the production countries of the researched region have deteriorated particularly since 2008/9".

Workers are also hampered by the inability of unions to fight for their most basic rights, including the opportunity to bargain for higher wages.

Among a host of allegations in the report are claims that workers earn EUR0.50 an hour sewing beads onto H&M or Triumph tops; and EUR1.0 per hour doing the same for Benetton or Max Mara. Adidas workers in Bosnia & Herzegovina said they earned EUR9 for a 10-hour work day, while those in Georgia are paid EUR5 for an 8-hour day.

Other practices discovered in factories include pushing workers into self-employment in Slovakia and Bulgaria. While the workers still work full hours and even overtime, this means employers avoid paying social security contributions or taking responsibility for workers.

There was also excessive use of short-term contracts in Bosnia & Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Georgia, Macedonia, Moldova, Romania and Slovakia.

Stealing leave days and overtime to make it seem like the minimum wage was reached, irregularities in taking leave, pay discrimination against minorities, refugees and migrants, and misuse of apprenticeship schemes or probation periods are among the so-called "wage theft practices" that are highlighted.

The retailers named in the report have declined to comment without having more detailed information on the factories.

The latest CCC report follows research published earlier this year on 'Tailored Wages,' which surveyed Europe's 50 leading fashion and sportswear brands on what they are doing to ensure a living wage is paid in their supply chains.

Click here to view the full "Stitched up" report.