For the global fashion brands, the countries in East and South-East Europe are a low wage paradise. Many brands even tout the fact they are “Made in Europe”, suggesting this means ‘fair’ conditions. In reality, many of the 1.7 million garment workers in the region live in poverty, face perilous work conditions, including forced overtime, and have accumulated significant debts.
These European sweatshops offer cheap, yet experienced and qualified workers. Far too often the monthly wages earned by the mostly women workforce only just meet the legal minimum monthly wages, which vary between 89 EUR in the Ukraine to 374 EUR in Slovakia. An actual living wage, so that a family could pay for basic needs, would need to be about four to five times higher. For instance, this would mean earning around 438 EUR a month in the Ukraine.
The legal minimum wages in the region are actually below the respective official poverty lines and subsistence levels for these countries. The consequences are brutal. “Sometimes, we simply have nothing to eat”, said a woman working in a garment factory in Ukraine. Another worker in Hungary stated, “Our wages are just enough to pay for energy, water and heating bills”.
Interviews with 110 workers in both shoe and garment factories in Hungary, Serbia and Ukraine revealed that many are forced to work overtime just to reach their production targets. Yet even doing this, they hardly make more than the legal minimum wage.
Many of the workers interviewed reported perilous working conditions such as exposure to heat and toxic chemicals, unhygienic conditions, unpaid and illegal forced overtime, and abusive treatment by management. Workers report feeling intimidated, and being under constant threat of termination or relocation.
“When Serbian workers ask why in the heat of summer there is no air-conditioning, why access to drinking water is limited, why they have to work again on a Saturday, the answer is always the same: ‘There’s the door’.”
It is clear that major international fashion brands are profiting substantially from this low wage system. The factories featured in the report produced for many global brands like Benetton, Esprit, GEOX, Triumph and Vera Moda, amongst others.
The Clean Clothes Campaign calls upon these brands to start paying a living wage, and to work together with their suppliers to eradicate the illegal and inhumane working conditions documented in the new report, Europe’s Sweatshops.
• Country file Ukraine: https://cleanclothes.org/livingwage/europe/factsheets/ukraine
• Country file Serbia: https://cleanclothes.org/livingwage/europe/factsheets/serbia
• Country file Hungary: https://cleanclothes.org/livingwage/europe/factsheets/hungary
• Presentation: “Europe’s Sweatshops” https://cleanclothes.org/livingwage/europe/europes-sweatshops