Over 24bn pairs of shoes were manufactured globally in 2014

Over 24bn pairs of shoes were manufactured globally in 2014

Shoes sold as Italian or German-made are being assembled in poor Eastern European countries by workers on "starvation wages", a new report claims, with brands showing little interest in the conditions under which they are produced. 

The research, 'Trampling workers rights underfoot', from the Change Your Shoes (CYS) campaign analysed 28 European footwear brands with an influential presence on European high streets, including Zara, Bata, Deichmann, and Leder & Schuh.

According to the report, the most labour-intensive stages in the shoe manufacturing process are often carried out in Eastern Europe and the Balkan states due to their close proximity to the European market –which ensures short delivery times – and extremely low wages.

In particular, the statutory minimum wages in Albania, Macedonia and Romania, which stand at EUR140, EUR145 and EUR156 per month respectively, are even lower than the legal minimum in China of EUR123. The widest disparity in living costs were in Bosnia-Herzegovina where average wages of EUR164 are less than one-fifth of the estimated EUR933 needed to support a family of four. In order for these factory workers to earn enough to support themselves and their families, wages need to be between four and five times higher, the report notes.  

"As many workers earn a wage based on units produced and not hours worked, they often work unpaid overtime or refuse to follow safety procedures that protect them from glue and hazardous chemicals in order to maintain high productivity," report authors explain. "In many factories workers face extreme cold in winter and temperatures so high in summer that they frequently collapse. The evidence is clear: the problems that are endemic and systemic to the shoe and clothing industry are a global issue, and they do not stop at Europe's borders."

Manufacture and consumption

Over 24bn pairs of shoes were manufactured globally in 2014, according to CYS, representing year-on-year growth of 8%. The majority of shoes are produced in Asia, accounting for 88% of the footwear made worldwide, with China the clear leader producing 64.6% of the world's shoes. 

Despite this, Europe remains an important market for shoe manufacturing, the report points out, with Italy, Portugal and Spain collectively responsible for producing 23% of all leather shoes. European production also remains central for European consumption, with almost 90% of the shoes produced in Europe also consumed in Europe.

In terms of worldwide consumption, the European market represents 17%, making it the second largest player in this respect. While Asia has 57% of the global shoe market, this still remains below the 60% share that Asia represents in terms of world population.

Brand responsibility

The report, however, found that brand-name businesses and retailers have, until now, paid far too little attention to the conditions under which their shoes are made. Eleven of the 23 companies surveyed couldn't provide any information at all, and the 12 that could, didn't provide solid evidence that basic labour laws were being adhered to or that the workers were earning a living wage, the report found. 

The companies that couldn't provide information included Tods, Ecco, Salvatore Ferragamo, Birkenstock and Bally. Those that were seen to be "dragging their feet" and showing little evidence of workers' human rights being respected included Gabor, Geox and Prada. 

Companies that acknowledged and mentioned work on human rights due diligence, but did not show much evidence of a fully implemented and comprehensive approach, included Bata, Clarks, Mango, and Deichmann. Only three companies were found to be "on the way" – Adidas, Eurosko, and El Naturalista – demonstrating some evidence of human rights due diligence processes, which are "largely incorporated across business operations, but not yet enough".

Ultimately, authors say the report shows shoe companies are not meeting their responsibilities to carry out Human Rights Due Diligence (HRDD) throughout their supply chains. 

Some key takeaways from the Change Your Shoes report include:

  • The supply chain structures of the majority of assessed companies could allow for meaningful HRDD. 
  • None of the companies have comprehensive business processes and practices in place to allow the identification of all potential and actual negative impacts on human rights. 
  • Companies risk focusing on the contractual business link to direct suppliers rather than looking at the actual production places for the most urgent, actual or potential breaches of labour and human rights. 
  • Vulnerable groups like migrant and home-based workers are not being identified by the companies in order for these groups to get the special protection they need.
  • There is a low degree of co-operation with stakeholders; however, such co-operation is a prerequisite for systematic change for workers in the global shoe production.

"From these results, it is clear that shoe companies need to intensify their efforts to systematically assess the risks in their business operations and to ensure labour and human rights are respected globally," authors noted. "Particularly with regard to the highly important aspects – such as living wage, occupational health and safety, freedom of association, transparency and public accounting – a lot remains to be done."

Click here to access the full report.