Sunday, September 22, 2019

The Sweat Shops of Eastern Europe

Romania is one of Europe's biggest garment producers and the sector is among its top exports.

European fashion brands have long found a foothold in the Eastern European country, with at least 400,000 people officially and informally employed in the industry.

But according to activists, a large number of Romanian garment workers are living on the poverty line, earning below the minimum wage as they are regularly abused by their bosses. One of them said she worked in a local clothing factory under a regime of "terror". 
"You cannot resist, insults and harassment are the norm," she wrote.
Another one referred to it as "the prison, where infectious slavery" goes on.  

study published in May by Clean Clothes Campaign, which lobbies to improve conditions for garment factory workers, said overtime - up to 15 hours a week - often goes unpaid in Romania, with the group claiming many workers were living in "survival mode".

Factories were poorly ventilated, the group said, while the denial of basic human rights by managers - "they often need to find a replacement worker in order to take toilet breaks" - were common.
This system of exploitation relies on a legal framework, which hinders trade unions by limiting their access to factory premises.

Dumitru Costin, the president of the National Trade Union Bloc (BNS), Romania's second largest union group, said BNS only represented around 6,000 workers in the textile and garment industry, less than five percent of the total - and he blames a reform in the 2011 labour law which was widely criticised as severely weakening workers' rights.

"The law has restrained employees' freedom of association and their right to form unions and strike, making it very hard for unions to reach out to workers," he said. "We have recorded cases of internal mobbing, in which employers terminated the contracts of workers who started to organise a union."

A new "social dialogue" law was also adopted. The national collective bargaining agreement (CBA), which previously set the minimum pay and the basic conditions for the entire economy, was abolished.
Worried by the new labour status quo, the European Union has repeatedly demanded changes.

Christian Wigand, spokesperson for Employment and Social Affairs of the European Commission, said the EU had issued recommendations to improve the Social Dialogue law, while calling on Romania to ensure the minimum wage was set based on objective criteria, consistent with job creation and competitiveness.

"The principle of an adequate minimum wage has been enshrined in the European Pillar of Social Rights," he added.
Romania's poverty rate is already 10 percent higher than the EU's average; across the countryside, people are six times more likely to face poverty than in cities.

"People in rural communities accept lower wages as they are subsistence farmers and have means to survive. They grow their own food and have animals. They do not protest because they fear companies might close and move to another village in retaliation. This leads to an easy exploitation of the workforce," Costin said.
Reports of poor factory conditions come against the backdrop of rising emigration in Romania, a country of 19 million.

Since 2007, when Romania joined the EU, emigration has increased by 162 percent - it now has the largest rate of emigration across the bloc.

To cope with a shortage of garment factory workers, some businesses employ labourers from Vietnam, Pakistan, India, China and Laos.

The Ministry of Labour does not have specific information about the number of non-EU workers in the garment sector. According to government data, 30,000 non-EU workers have so far accessed the labour market this year.
Bulgaria's garment and textile sector was worth 2 billion euros ($2.2bn) in 2018, accounting for around 10 percent of the country's total exports - mostly which headed to German, French, Greek and Italian brands. Unpaid salaries over the years have seen protests erupt.

Radina Bankova chairs the Bulgarian Association of Apparel and Textile Producers and Exporters Member of Euratex (BAATPE), which represents 120-member companies of varying sizes, employing between 15,000 and 18,000 workers.
"There are no regulations," Bankova told Al Jazeera. "For the past 10 years, the government has considered the garment sector as a sector with a low added value."

"There were 20 people working there, producing women's clothes." Maria said, sitting in her sewing room.  "There was no proper lighting, no windows. It felt like being in a bunker. Managers were yelling and screaming at the workers. We worked non-stop, also preparing the packaging and skipping lunch." At 5pm, she said, workers of Roma background came to take over and work a night shift. They were treated even worse; they did not have contracts and were paid in cash - just 3.9 lev ($2.2) per hour - for working up to five hours a day. Maria was in charge of supervising them, working between 10 and 12 hours a day in total, but she received no overtime pay. With her Bulgarian colleagues earning between 300 and 700 ($170 to $394) before tax, she said witnessing the exploitation of the Roma workers was "heartbreaking".
Like Romanians, Bulgarians are also leaving their country seeking better work abroad. Since 1990, some 1.5 million people have left the country of about seven million. When Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, there were 165,000 textile workers. Today only 90,000 remain.

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