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Eastern Europe

Eastern Europe has become an important centre for garment manufacture by European companies. Its location makes short delivery times possible, it has a qualified labour force, and developed infrastructure.

70 to 80% of all the apparel produced in Eastern Europe is shipped to the EU and nearly half of all the apparel produced in Eastern Europe is exported to Germany.

In Eastern Europe, there are frequently high official standards for social security and the rights of workers. For example, there are laws that protect mothers like the one that requires employers offer 2 years of paid maternity leave in some eastern European countries.

However, evidence suggests that these standards are not respected by many employers.

‘In the countries where unemployment in real terms is over 20% – in some areas over 50% – the employees’ bargaining position remains feeble.’

Fashion companies can address this in their buying practices from Eastern Europe, and through building working partnerships with their suppliers, and many pioneering companies are already doing this.

The first step for fashion professionals to take action to ensure fair practices in Eastern European production is to inform themselves of legal minimum requirements, living wage levels and to be aware of the common problems which face workers so that they can start to take positive action.

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In the 1970s West German producers started to relocate their manufacturing operations to the former Yugoslavia, other East European countries and the former DDR or East Germany.

The civil war in the former Yugoslavia forced many fashion manufacturers to relocate to places like Romania, Bulgaria and other Eastern European countries.

By the end of the 90s, much of the garment production was shifting away from Hungary to Romania and Bulgaria.

Recently production has been relocating to factories in the Ukraine, Russia and Albania. Subcontracting often takes place with Czech Republic manufacturers outsourcing to Ukrainian firms.

Big Greek and Turkish manufacturers are establishing relationships with Romania, Macedonia, Albania and Bulgaria to subcontract production.

A Romanian NGO-activist described it this way: ‘We are Europe’s backyards’.

There are reported cases of employees being fired just before they retire so that employers do not have to pay for their severance packages. These same workers may even get hired as ‘new’ employees. In Poland, there are instances of Ukranian seamstresses being hired as cheap labour without any employee rights.

The trend is moving towards hiring employees on a fixed-term basis; and the replacement of permanent employees with contract and hired labour is becoming increasingly widespread because the laws mostly only protect permanent employees with labour contracts. In some Eastern European countries, the state labour inspection officers are denied legal access to the very companies they are supposed to be inspecting except when they are accompanied by the police.

The legal minimum wage is generally implemented in Eastern Europe countries.

Unfortunately there is no guarantee that this is connected to the actual cost of living. With the inevitable increase in the cost of living the legal minimum wage often does not keep up. Employees may be paid the legal minimum wage officially and then all further work is paid in cash (not covered by social security or taxes). Annual leave or sick pay is only covered by the legal minimum wage rate and does not cover the extra cash income.

‘It would be fine for us to pay more to the workers as long as it applies to all our competitors as well. For example, if government raise the legal minimum wages’ Leading international high street company.

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