Garment workers in Asia are not the only ones under siege in a post-COVID-19 world.
A joint investigation by the Clean Clothes Campaign and German nonprofit Bread for the World found that roughly 120,000 laborers across Europe are being compelled to work—for “far less than a living wage”—despite widespread closures of non-essential businesses amid the current pandemic.
Workers in Bulgaria, Croatia, Serbia and Ukraine, especially, continue to make clothes for Germany-based fashion brands such as Esprit, Gerry Weber and Hugo Boss in violation of international guidelines to socially distance, the groups say.
And the environments are often far from sanitary: A Croatian supplier for Hugo Boss, for instance, did not have sufficient toilet paper and soap until January, claimed Bettina Musiolek of the Clean Clothes Campaign.
“The crisis hits fashion retailers hard but the last in the chain, the workers, have to bear the biggest burden. I have not heard anything from Hugo Boss, Esprit or Gerry Weber on how they intend to ease this burden,” Musiolek said in a statement. “Many think of this as a problem confined to Asia but these developing world conditions are rife across Europe, too.”
One Croatian tailor, who makes goods for Hugo Boss, told the groups that workers who call in sick face “tough reprisals.”
“If you’re sick, you’d better kill yourself,” he said. “You cannot afford sick leave.”
As many as 1.7 million garment workers in Eastern and Southeastern Europe were working for far less than a living wage even before the pandemic began, the Clean Clothes Campaign estimates. A tailor in Ukraine earned, on average, 126 euros ($136) per month, which left little cash over for contingency savings.
“In order to make ends meet, these workers would have to earn three to five times what they earn now,” Musiolek said. “This is not happening because brands like Hugo Boss, Esprit or Gerry Weber purchase their clothes from suppliers at very low prices—between less than 1 percent to around max. 5 percent of the high street retail price.”
But even this “meager wage” is no longer within reach. Just like their counterparts in Cambodia, Bangladesh and Vietnam, many factories in Germany have silenced their production lines because of canceled orders based on what brands are calling an unforeseeable “force majeure“ event.
Employees told the Clean Clothes Campaign that they’ve been placed on unpaid leave, not for their protection but because there is scant work. Those who already live on the brink of destitution now find themselves in even more dire straits.
All of this goes to show that voluntary initiatives by brands and retailers have failed despite so many calls to action, Musiolek said.
“National and international human rights and workers rights laws continue to be flouted, even by member states of the EU,” she said. “Governments and the European Union must adopt appropriate legislation for brands and retailers to implement human rights in their global supply chains. Until there is a strategic means of tackling this issue, there will be tens of thousands suffering in global brands’ supply chains.”
The organization is urging brands like Esprit, Gerry Weber and Hugo Boss to engage fully with their suppliers as a “matter of urgent need.”
“This means concretely that finished or in-production orders must not be cancelled and are paid fully and on time,” Musiolek said. “The brands must take a stand and support suppliers to make sure that workers have safe workplaces and transport including safe distancing between employees and the provision of protective equipment which workers’ reports reveal is not the case.”
An Esprit spokesperson told Sourcing Journal that the company is “very concerned” about the labor conditions described in the groups’ report.
“At Esprit, sustainability and social responsibility are part of our DNA and at the heart of our strategy. Gender discrimination, repressive treatment of workers, forced labor and violation of labor laws are strictly prohibited under the Esprit’s Supplier Code of Conduct,” the spokesperson said.
Esprit says it immediately contacted its supplier in Ukraine, which “strongly refutes” the claims made by the Clean Clothes Campaign and Bread for the World.
“Additionally, our external audit teams have recently conducted several audits and the factories all came back with very positive results,” the spokesperson said. “We are continuing to investigate these serious claims, though travel is impossible now due to COVID-19. We are reinforcing to all of our suppliers in the region of their obligations under the Esprit supplier code of conduct to protect the rights of their workers.”
Gerry Weber, which produces in both Europe and Asia, says it uses “certified resources” only and that payment of a living wage is an integral part of its long-term strategy.
“Gerry Weber would appreciate to receive precise and traceable indication on non-compliances at our partner factories,” a spokesperson told Sourcing journal. “This would enable us to start a dialogue and work on improvements in cooperation with our partner.”
A spokesperson from Hugo Boss says the company is still working on verifying the allegations made in the report.
“We have not yet been able to verify the accusations made in the report. In order to check whether the described circumstances correspond to reality, a careful review is necessary,” the spokesperson said. “We are therefore currently in close contact with the suppliers on site to investigate the actual situation and to examine in detail the allegations contained in the report. Should the allegations prove to be true, these suppliers would violate the Hugo Boss social standards, which form the basis of all our business relationships…[and] we would initiate measures to work together to find solutions and make improvements on site.”
Editor’s note: This article was updated on May 4 with statements from all three brands.