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September 19, 2019 5 min read
Manufacturing inside Europe has lots of benefits. Europe has a long history of garment, shoe and textile production. The infrastructure in Europe is developed and still in good shape, and the workforce is skilled for premium quality. The proximity of the European consumer market is a big and obvious plus; it saves time and money to manufacture near to the customers. Very often it is also possible to produce small orders instead of huge mass-produced batches. 
In the time of climate crisis, manufacturing small batches near to the users is eco-friendlier because of short distances, the ability to transport goods on tyres instead of using aircraft and less brand-new unsold garments ends up to landfill. Some studies even suggest that the garment industry is becoming more regional, and the inside EU export and import is driving despite the region’s higher labour costs and competition from Asian suppliers.  In 2017, 69% of the exported clothing in the European Union and 47% of the imported clothes came from other EU countries. 
Today, however, we want to remind us all that the label “Made in Europe" or “Made in EU” is not a guarantee for ethics. Some brands might even use it to create a greener image in the eyes of their desired customers. We at Népra wanted to understand this issue better and to know if it's possible to find poverty caused by the garment industry inside Europe where we ought to know the legislation and working conditions are safe and fair.
Especially after the collapse of Rana Plaza in 2013, many companies started to talk about relocating themselves in Europe.  Sadly, the Clean Clothes Campaign research shows various labour and human rights violations together with extremely low wages. Clean Clothes Campaign and their partners investigated the sweatshops in Turkey and post-socialist countries in Eastern Europe excluding Baltic countries, Poland, Belarus, Czech Republic and Greece . In the researched countries, there are a total of three million formal and informal garment workers.  72-92% of the workers in this region are women . For many families, the wage of these workers is the only steady income .
The post-socialist countries went through de-industrialisation process due to closure or privatisation of state-owned textile trusts in the early 1990s. This led to enormous unemployment that caused growing informal economies. Since the late 1990s, there has been a growing subcontracted garment manufacturing that has unfortunately led to unchosen “self-employment” and home-base working in the garment industry. If a contractor agrees to collaborate with a self-employed, the factory must not pay social insurance payments leaving the self-employed in a vulnerable position. Due to the lack of other work opportunities to make a living and support the household, many people accept these unfair working conditions. Since 2008, stagnation and decreasing sector have kept deteriorating the working conditions even more. 
There is also the concept of Outward Processing Trade or “Lohn” production that aims to export the labour-intensive parts into the cheaper neighbour countries and protect the own industry at the same time. This system developed in Europe in the early 90s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, this type of re-importation agreement only benefits the buyer but is a dead-end for a national economy due to high dependency and very limited elbowroom or upgrading opportunities.  This type of system takes advantage of the vulnerable and dependent economies and also supports the informal garment industry in Eastern Europe and Turkey.
For the garment industry in Asia, it is typical that the workers are mostly young, uneducated women and they migrate from rural regions to find a job to support their family back at home. In Europe, on the contrary, most of the workers commute to work from home. Many women are between 40-50 years old and have worked in the industry for 20 years. Most workers have completed secondary school and professional education. Some of them have even studied in a university, but because of the lack of other job opportunities, they sew clothes. 
The national minimum wages are often below the official poverty lines and subsistence levels. Many times, the wage is just enough to pay for the bills but no food. In all these researched countries, there is a tremendous gap between the legal minimum wage and the estimated minimum living wage. The gap tends to be even larger in Europe than it is in Asia. In Moldova and Ukraine, the legal minimum wage is even lower than in Indonesia. [1,4]
Some factories only pay the friction of the wage what their employees need to live and force people to do overtime just to reach the production target lines. For example, the garment workers in Ukraine make just 89€ per month and in Hungary 225€. Some workers work without a contract or they only have a part-time contract. Many times the system is so twisted that the workers “reach” their full paycheck only if they meet their manufacturing goals. The garment workers face abusive behaviour and even sexual harassment. 
Many international brands are profiting by unethical conditions all over the world. Also, it seems that many companies choose to produce in Europe, not because of the benefits we listed at the beginning of the article, but because of other “competitive advantages” such as low labour cost and capacities for fast production and delivery and abuse the holes in the current legislation. However, as we wrote in our previous article about Living Wage, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights states that it is the duty and responsibility of a company to respect and protect human rights . Also, EU Social Charter legally binds governments, companies, and people respect social rights like health and safety at the workplace, social protection and equal treatment . Why aren't these responsibilities respected?
For us, it is hard to understand, why big international companies avoid these responsibilities. Instead of passively waiting for better times, we can all keep asking the companies, who made our clothes and insist on more human conditions and living wage for all the garment workers around the world.
If you want to know more, we have listed all the resources and further reading below.
Ama & Essi
Does it make a difference to buy eco & fair?
Ethics in the garment industry
How Regional Supply Chains are shaping world textile and apparel trade
World Trade Statistical Tables 2018
Stitched up: poverty wages for garment workers in Eastern Europe and Turkey
Wikipedia: UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights
Community Charter of Fundamental Social Rights for Worker
Living wage: Europe
(includes short documentation about Serbia)
April 11, 2023 2 min read
March 21, 2022 1 min read
Since we founded the company, we have wanted to do good, give more than we take, and also make an impact - not only in the textile industry but in the world.
This year we’ll donate 50 cents for every item you purchase for the John Nurminen Foundation.
January 25, 2022 2 min read