Every fourth garment sold in a major European market like Germany comes from a textile factory in Eastern or Southeastern Europe. But there, the seamstresses who make clothes for the big fashion brands only get poverty wages – sometimes less than their colleagues in the Far East.
Together with local textile workers, the Clean Clothes Campaign has calculated a living wage for European low-wage countries such as Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia or Ukraine. This gives the EU a basis to pass a law against insufficient minimum wages and fashion companies an indication of what they should pay in the respective countries.
What should garment workers in Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Ukraine earn?
Even if they earn the local minimum wage, many of the 2.3 million workers in the Eastern and Southeastern European fashion industry remain poor and lack basic necessities. A living wage is one with which families can cover their basic needs such as food, clothing, housing, transportation, hygiene needs, culture and recreation, and build up reserves with which they can survive during tough times, a pandemic, for example.
According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, however, many places do not even pay the legal minimum wage: “Take Romania, for example: In this EU member state, a seamstress earns an average of 208 euros [250 US dollars, 181 British pounds] per month – 41 euros less than the law stipulates. In order to be able to live on this – i.e. to have money for rent and holidays – she would have to earn 1,061 euros [1,272 US dollars, 922 British pounds],” the organisation said in a recent press release.
Basic living wage for Eastern Europe: between 734 euros and 1,558 euros per month
The basic living wage, which was calculated together with the workers, is different for each country. For example, it is 1,558 euros in Slovakia [1867 US dollars, 1353 British pounds], 1,026 euros in Bulgaria [1230 US dollars, 890 British pounds] and 734 euros in Northern Macedonia [880 US dollars, 638 British pounds]. The Clean Clothes Campaign also found that the minimum wage in these countries is on average only a quarter of this living wage.
“Fashion houses now have a concrete benchmark for Europe. They can no longer claim that they pay the minimum wage applicable in the country – which, by the way, is usually a starvation wage,” summarises Bettina Musiolek from the Clean Clothes Campaign, who is helping to develop the basic living wage for Europe.
Minimum wage often only a quarter of living wage
This could also be an important guideline for the EU Parliament. “It is not only the fashion companies that block the payment of higher wages through their local pricing policies – the EU has also hindered the setting of higher minimum wages by imposing conditions combined with lending to Eastern Europe,”Musiolek criticises. She calls on the EU, in its ongoing legislative process, to ensure truly adequate minimum wages that are also monitored and implemented effectively.
Together with the Swiss organisation Public Eye, the Clean Clothes Campaign Austria and Germany have checked the most important European brands from Adidas to Zalando in terms of what they pay their seamstresses. The full report can be downloaded from the website of the Clean Clothes Campaign Germany (Saubere-kleidung.de).