Romanian clothing and textile labour force figures have been plummeting over the last 12 years

Romanian clothing and textile labour force figures have been plummeting over the last 12 years

Economic data shows Romanian clothing and textile workers are suffering from comparatively low wages, with increases lagging behind employees in other sectors.

Average monthly net wages for workers in Romania's textile, garment and footwear industry reached RON2,280 (US$543) in December 2018, almost one-third less than the national average of RON3,770 (US$897), according to Romania's National Institute for Statistics (Institutul National de Statistica – INSSE) and Romania's National Bank (Banca Nationala a României – BNR). 

The lag persists despite a steady increase in clothing and textile industry salaries of 150% between 2007-2017.

About 148,000 people work in Romania's textile and garment industry, says the INSSE. This is significantly fewer than in the recent past. Romanian clothing and textile labour force figures have been plummeting over the last 12 years, with about 135,000 jobs lost between 2007-2017 as a result of Asian competition, the financial crisis, and VAT increases discouraging foreign investments. 

But Romania continues to draw big fashion outsourcing contracts. 

Romanian Clothing Manufacturers, a company facilitating outsourcing for foreign brands, lists cheap, hardworking labour as a top selling point for investors, highlighting "the second lowest minimum wage out of 20 EU members." This is about EUR243 (US$267) per month, based on a 2018 KPMG study. 

However, many Romanian clothing sector workers still receive minimum wages with no overtime paid, a recent Clean Clothes Campaign study shows, while still sometimes being expected to complete "impossibly high quotas."

Overtime – on average 10-15 hours weekly – is not officially recorded, the same study shows. The organisation claims that Romanian clothing and textile workers often live on or below the poverty line, with wages that make up only 14% of a living wage for a family.

Great potential

While it is true that international brands pay little for labour, the country is not the cheapest for outsourcing, according to Alina Rachieru, the coordinator of clothing worker pay and conditions improvement campaign 'Fashion Revolution Romania.' 

"Romania's textile industry has had a great potential," says Rachieru, the owner of Romanian clothing manufacturing and retail brand Pineberry, "but it keeps losing territory as it's missing specialised workers, while young people have no interest to work in the industry. Those in the industry are quitting to find new careers."

Recent salary rises have not made a difference to workers' quality of life, as in 2017 the Romanian government shifted the burden of social security contributions from employers to employees, who now pay 35% of their income in taxes, compared to 16.5% previously. 

Earlier demands in 2016 from Romania's textile workers' association Asociatia Nationala a Industriei Textilelor din Romania for progressive taxation failed.

Negotiating better employment terms by unions is also often not an option. Labour law reforms in 2011 undermined national collective bargaining systems that had helped protect workers, leaving companies and the industry freer to set their own wage levels.

Henceforth, only companies with more than 21 employees needed to secure collective workers' agreements and only companies with more than 15 employees have to negotiate with a union, if their workers demand it. 

Many clothing and textile companies in Romania are small and so do not meet those thresholds, claim researchers from the Clean Clothes Campaign. Last year, a parliamentary initiative to revise legislation and drop the minimum requirement for union representation from 15 to three employees was rejected by the Romanian Senate.  

Public awareness

Several media reports in recent years have flagged textile workers' mistreatment and poor working conditions. 

A 2016 investigation by Romanian journalism cooperative Casa Jurnalistului revealed improper working conditions, including insufficient ventilation, no time for bathroom breaks and aggressive management.

Rachieru notes that the report from this probe became viral online and helped increase public awareness of the problems in the industry. She stresses, however, that there are still Romanian clothing manufacturers who are investing in improving machines and working conditions.

"In the last two years, brands are becoming more responsible towards workers' conditions," she explains Rachieru. "And I can tell you this from the manufacturer point of view – me and my family are shirt producers, with our own factory. Many new international customers are asking us, before they decide to work with us, what are our workers' conditions – how many hours per day they work, if they have lunch breaks, medical insurance, safe working conditions. And I am glad they started to care about all these."

An analysis of EU textile and apparel trade on just-style last year noted that production of medium-priced products for consumption in the mass market fell to developing countries in Eastern and Southern Europe, such as Poland, Hungary and Romania, where cheap labour is relatively abundant. This compares with developed Western EU countries, such as Italy, UK, France and Germany, that produce high-end luxury apparel.