“Slaves of 21st century”

Textile Industry Interview with Dr. Bettina Musiolek, Bojana Tamindzija and Oksana Dutchak of "Clean Clothes Campaign" about "Europe's Sweatshops" at Rosa-Luxemburg-Conference.
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On 9 November 2017, the "Clean Clothes Campaign" (CCC) published in cooperation with Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung (RLS) "Europe's Sweatshops", a report about the employee’s exploitation working in the clothes branch. The report documents grievances of exploitation in east and southeast Europe. 110 workers in the textile industry in Ukraine, Serbia and Hungary were surveyed. The main principals are big textile companies like Benetton, Esprit, Geox, Triumph or Vero Moda.

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Dr. Bettina Musiolek, report’s co-author and CCC’s regional coordinator states an atmosphere of intimidation. “The employee’s feel themselves like slaves in 21st century. We call on the companies to pay the future’s safeguarding wages and to eradicate the mischiefs together with the subcontractors.”

In the following, the researchers and CCC activists Dr. Bettina Musiolek, Bojana Tamindzija, Oksana Dutchak, are going to tell us about the reports.

Dr. Musiolek, what is the CCC about?

The Clean Clothes Campaign is a global labour rights initiative which aims to improve working conditions and wages in the garment industry. It is a global network of more than 200 organisations including trade unions and civil society organisations.

Ms Tamindzija, Ms Dutchak, which idea did you have for the country reports in Serbia and Ukraine?

Oksana Dutchak: When CCC and RLS approached me with the idea of the research in Ukraine, I was surprised, at first. I didn’t know that brands were producing in Ukraine. And definitely I had no idea under which conditions they were producing here. Of course, I’ve read Naomi Klein and heard all the stories about Bangladesh, India, China. So, my first interest was to understand (for myself) whether the situation in Ukraine is close to all those stories. And I find it extremely important to bring this topic to Ukrainian public discourse, where it is either absent or totally positive image. There are few reports on brands’ production in Ukrainian media, and all of them praise “good investment climate” the country provides for brands. Good qualification of workers and cheap comparatively cheap labour. And they never question what does this cheapness mean for workers, their families and their communities.

Bojana Tamindzija: Before colleague Stefan Aleksić and I started the research for CCC on garment and shoe industry, in Serbia it was already very well known that working conditions in foreign companies are not at highest level. However, most of the cases of violation of labour rights, which are appearing in the mainstream media are presented as isolated “scandals”. In that terms, the main aim of the research was to show that we are dealing with a structural problem. Extremely low wages and bad working conditions are the rule under which working class in Serbia is forced to work. On the other hand, in addition to the profits brands make, most of the companies that are producing in Serbia are receiving subsidies from our government

What do you think about terms like “made in Europe”, having commonly a higher reputation than for example “made in China”?

Oksana Dutchak: Interesting question. I would say it is based on a constructed image of “Europe”, as a homogenous “progressive”, “developed”, “modern”, “democratic”, “social” space. Which is definitely not true, shown by empirical research (this and many others). And it is opposed to “Asia” - also a constructed image of homogenous “poor”, “underdeveloped” etc. So, made in Europe is supposed to be both better quality and produced in better conditions. And this research is precisely to show that it is not always so.

Ms Dutchak, I read in your report that the minimum wage in Ukraine is 89 EUR. In comparison to my home country Germany this amount could not even be a bad joke. You demanded in the report for Ukraine an estimated minimum living wages round around 13.803 UAH[1], converted round about 477 EUR. How do you think this goal can be achieved?

Oksana Dutchak: This can be achieved only by changing the purchasing practices of brands – how much they pay for their orders. They are the first one responsible because they are the most powerful actors in global apparel production chains. They are the one who get the most profit in this system, and they are the one who distribute money in this system. But without legally binding international regulations on labour conditions and payment, I hardly expect that the situation in Ukraine or anywhere can improve in a systematic way. That is one of the most important message in CCC research for me: sweatshops reappear from factory to factory, from country to country. And this fact should push for the discourse of global legally binding regulation as a necessity.

It also partially depends on the local state – whether and how it enforces the law on local factories and what is the minimum wage established. While (unfortunately) there is no legal mechanism to force brands to pay more, there is a legal mechanism to observe the law on minimum wages. And to enforce that law. The minimum wage must be higher and the state institutions should control whether it is paid and whether the law in general is observed. Often they fail to do so. But taking into account that fast increase of the minimum wage by the state can just make capital run away from the country, power of the state in this system is limited, comparing with brands’ and international community’s power.

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On 5 November, Stefan Lessenich, German sociologist gave the German broadcast Deutschlandfunk an interview about our western “externalisation society”. He already wrote last year in his book – “Neben uns die Sintflut. Die Externalisierungsgesellschaft und ihr Preis” – about the structures in which “we” (the West) live at the cost of poorer, also East European countries. Regarding the “Serbia report”, 37,4% in the first nine month in 2016 of the apparel goes to Italy, the country where I live right now. How do you think we must change the structure of work to avoid the exploitation of employees and to live in a “social democracy” which grants a proper living standard for all?

Oksana Dutchak: I don’t think that “social democracy” can provide such a change. Throughout the history, social democracy and extensive welfare states were possible only in “core” countries. Unfortunately, in this economic system, welfare of the people in core has been always based on exploitation of the people in periphery. It is not the structure of work which must/can be changed. It is the relations of production in general.

Bojana Tamindzija: The fact that 37,4 % of apparel export goes to Italy means that among brands that are producing in Serbia Italians are the most dominant. But as Oksana already said we cannot solve the situation dealing with a single country or even a region, we need deep structural changes in order to avoid exploitation of working class in Eastern Europe, Africa or Asia and keep in mind that lowering of labour standards in so called “poor” countries also affects labour force in the West.

How do you think the consumers should cope with the fashion companies exploiting their employees? Avoiding them?

Dr. Bettina Musiolek: Consumers can facilitate change, but they cannot make the change. There are – particularly in Germany and other West European countries – many consumers who already now demand decent working conditions according to national and international law. This is actually something that should go without saying and as a consumer, I would presuppose that the goods I purchase are made under conditions obeying the law.

The main responsible actors which can make the change, are global fashion brands and policy makers. Global fashion brands should live up to their human rights due diligence and policy makers should implement binding rules for global brands’ production networks.

Oksana Dutchak, at Conference from CCC and RLS in Berlin

When you surveyed the employees in the textile companies, please try to describe their feeling and attitude considering their working conditions denoted by overtime, pressure and perpetually attainability?

Oksana Dutchak: In Ukraine, many were unhappy with their situation, of course. They complain, but mostly feel powerless. There are no independent unions, only “yellow”, and self-organization is restricted because of the repressions. People can be fired and they are afraid to lose the job. As the result, they live in a constant “austerity” (on everything, including food, healthcare), sometimes indebted, having no resources and time for recreation.

At the same time, surprisingly (at least for me) many express satisfactions with their job. It provides them with social package (like health leave, annual leave), and it is more or less stable. Despite being poorly payed, with extensive overtime – often it is the best job they can have in their towns, especially if it is a small one. And for many it is impossible to move elsewhere to look for a better job – because of age, health, family situation and so on. This reflects the extremely poor economic situation in Ukraine, of course.

Bojana Tamindzija: It is almost the same situation in Serbia, workers are not satisfied with wages and working conditions, but lack of proper union organising is making them powerless. With the wages couple of time lower than the living wages, most of the workers are literally barely surviving. What keeps them at their jobs is lack of choice and huge unemployment rate.

[1] Ukraine’s currency

The interview was also published in December edition of Bologna University Magazine Schegge and is published in Italian online Magazine Atlas.

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Llaria La Torre, Master student from Bologna University, translated the interview for Atlas in Italian.
17:34 15.11.2017
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