The hidden costs of fast fashion

Photo by Yevgenia Belorusets

In recent years, thanks to the global market, garment production has, to a great extent, moved from Asia to the post-communist countries of Eastern Europe. Liceulice discussed the realities of the working conditions in these countries, and Serbia in particular, with Bojana Tamindzija and Stefan Aleksic from the Serbian branch of Clean Clothes Campaign.

The Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) is an international initiative launched in 1989 that is dedicated to improving working conditions and empowering workers in the global clothing industry. The CCC gathers together hundreds of organizations and trade unions around the world, both in developed consumer nations and manufacturing countries that provide cheap labour. Serbia is in the latter category. 

What are the main principles that your initiative works on and what methods do you use when pursuing this important topic?

In order to understand how the Clean Clothes Campaign works, we have to understand how modern fashion and the textile industry function on a global level. On one hand, as customers, we see famous brands and the advertising of new products for every season; on the other, there are factories where millions of workers across the globe manufacture clothes and shoes in conditions that are far from excellent and for miserable wages. 

Fashion industry production is organised via global supply chains and countries providing low-cost labour become part of the network for suppliers and dealers, while big brands take no responsibility for the conditions in such factories, as they do not work directly for brand names. The Clean Clothes Campaign applies pressure on big brands to be more transparent in terms of the structure of the brand chain supply and makes them responsible for the working conditions in all levels of production. Big brand companies possess power and money and they fully dictate the production process, regardless of what part of the world they are located in. 

Workers around the world have the right to have dignified work conditions, access to trade unions and, most of all, the right to live a normal life using the salary that they earn. The face that we need to emphasise basic facts, such as the fact that workers have right, tells us as lot about the state of workers’ rights in the manufacturing side of the fashion industry. To summarise, the Clean Clothes Campaign uses field research to persistently make the working conditions that workers endure visible and thus we support, in tandem with trade unions, improvements to working conditions and better salaries. In addition to applying pressure to big brands, we call upon different national and international institutions to play a great part in terms of their responsibilities for workers’ rights on a global level.

Recently, within the global market, there has been an increase in transferring the manufacture of clothing from Asia to post-communist countries in Eastern Europe. What are the implications of this for Serbia?  

Big brand production has always been present in eastern Europe: for example, remember the big brand production of sport equipment in the former Yugoslavia. However, a complete crash of the economies in the region, along with the collapse of communism, completely changed our position in comparison to rest of the West. 

The demands made by fashion companies essentially boil down to a single issue: increasingly low production costs. In this manner, Serbia, along with other Eastern European countries, does anything to abide with such demands. The legally guaranteed minimum wage has been kept disgracefully low for decades, employment rights have been adapted to the employers’ demands, foreign companies are awarded grants and taxes are being massively reduced. In addition to low cost labour, the region has one important benefit for big brands: costs and the speed of transport. In comparison with goods transported from Asia, which will take months to reach Western Europe, transportation from our region will only take a day or two. Apart from the low costs involved, it also satisfies the demand for the quick transportation of seasonal collections. 

You conducted a large research project related to work conditions in the textile industry in Serbia. What were your findings when interviewing employees in this branch of industry? What are the major problems they face in their work? 

The findings are telling about the humiliating reality of life for factory workers. From factory to factory, the problems are mostly identical: there is a lack of safety equipment, the factories are not purpose-built, high temperatures during summer, low temperatures during winter, terrible pressure on workers to produce more and more, mistreatment and other forms of abusive behaviour. What is dangerous is that overtime and weekend work is becoming a regular occurrence and it is not being correctly paid or not properly paid: employers insist on not paying overtime and justify this on the basis of the lack of a quota being met. I remind workers that they should not accept such employers’ demands. The International Labour Organisation defines such form of force as forceful work. Some of these problems go beyond the legal limit and become part of the domain of criminal law. In some cases, female workers end up being locked in special rooms of the building when the inspector comes and staff are banned from calling ambulances if workers start fainting in massive numbers on hot summer days. Some “so-called” medical assistance is performed, so that the company cannot be tainted by a bad image, but it is inadequate.

As a result of your interviews with workers, you compared workers’ wages with what they feel would be enough for them to lead what they termed a “dignified life”. What is the disparity between the wages that workers are getting and the hypothetical wages that would provide them with a decent quality of life?

In a nutshell, there is a humiliating disparity. Wages in textile manufacturing are extremely low and the majority of workers are women who are paid far below the minimum wage. The minimum wage, in terms of a monthly wage, is 11,000 dinars (including overtime and working on Saturdays). But wages are far below what is considered necessary for maintaining a dignified quality of life, even within the domains of the law. The costs of living are relatively high, and a complicating issue is the fact that it is extremely hard to estimate costs of living for female workers employed in textile industry because they do not have holidays included. Because of the low wages that they receive, female workers save whenever they can. They have been forced to save on food and the majority of female workers take on second jobs, so that they can survive. Very often they also work in the fields. In the end, after taking everything into account, we estimate that a minimum wage in Serbia is one in which 30% of the salary is spent on the minimum requirements necessary for maintaining a decent quality of life. In the situation in textile industry the situation is significantly worse: in the majority of cases, the wages in the textile industry are below the legal minimum wage.

How are trade unions organised in the textile industry and how much does their [non-]existence affect workers’ conditions and the costs of work?

There are about 1,800 registered factories in the textile industry in Serbia. Our data shows that trade unions exist in no more than 50 factories. Employees contracts also do not exist and there are barely five contracts at factory level. These humiliating statistics have several causes, from legal regulation through to trade unions fearing workers raising their voices against breaches of basic labour rights. This status quo is embraced by both the state and companies and, as a result, Serbia is becoming a fertile ground for foreign companies to make an enormous amount of profit at the expense of domestic workers. What the Serbian government calls “direct foreign investment” is actually a synonym for the super-exploitation of labour and a complete annihilation of the domestic economy.

What are the possibilities for applying pressure on employers within the textile industry and to what extent can the Clean Clothes Campaign can help workers?

The problem with the possibility of applying pressure on employers lies in the fact that even the existing possibilities are not being used and, very often, employers successfully suppress workers and prevent them from brandishing the most effective weapon when it comes to labour; that is, organising trade unions. Let me be frank: in the textile industry, the word trade union is almost a forbidden word. But in the situations where workers are able to organise themselves effectively and to establish a trade union that defends their rights, their situation is radically improved. There is no more unpaid overtime, there are no more unpaid working Saturdays, and so forth. But until organising trade unions becomes the norm, the Clean Clothes Campaign offers some mechanisms that can help employees in the big brand textile industry. We offer a system based on urgent assistance: in cases where employees are faced with certain problems, the CCC can report these issues to the big brand companies and demand that the problems are solved.

Translated from Serbian by Katya Ven-Vujetic

Courtesy of Liceulice /



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