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AMSTERDAM – Bringing garment manufacture closer to home is not necessarily the solution to reducing poor working conditions for employees if a new report on the garment sector in Eastern and South Eastern Europe is to be believed. The report claims poverty wages and exploitative working conditions are the norm for workers in factories in the Ukraine, Serbia and Hungary producing for brands such as Benetton, Esprit and Vera Moda.

The Clean Clothes Campaign claims many workers in the Ukraine are being paid just 89 Euros per month, an amount which places them significantly below the national poverty line.  

This is not the first time questions have been raised about working conditions in Eastern Europe’s burgeoning garment sector, and the report also follows similar revelations in the UK, where garment workers in Leicester have been found to be earning substantially below the legal minimum wage once unpaid overtime is taken into consideration.

The Clean Clothes Campaign claims that contrary to what some might say, the tag ‘Made in Europe’ is no guarantee of fair working conditions, and that many of the 1.7 million garment workers in the region live in poverty, face dangerous working conditions and have accumulated significant debts.

Says the report: “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.

“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.”

Interviews for the report were carried out with 110 workers in both shoe and garment factories in Hungary, Serbia and Ukraine. 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.

“It is clear that major international fashion brands are profiting substantially from this low wage system,” claims the report. “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.”

While we could go along with some of this, we would also suggest the role of national governments in each of the countries examined cannot be ignored. The report acknowledges that factories are meeting legal minimum wages, indicating that it is the minimum wage itself that is too low – which is surely a concern for local legislators rather than – or, perhaps, as well as – apparel brands.

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