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Desperate Sweatshop Workers Sew Cries for Help Into Clothing

Workers who made clothes for the world’s largest fashion retailer didn’t get paid. Now they are asking consumers for help.

Desperate Sweatshop Workers Sew Cries for Help Into Clothing

The Spanish fashion retailer Zara has been accused of stealing its designs, animal cruelty, polluting the environment and treating its workers poorly. However, so long as shoppers kept buying, the company wasn’t deterred by the bad publicity. Now the workers who make the clothing sold at Zara and other “fast fashion” retailers are sending buyers a little reminder of the suffering their dollars support. They have been slipping “protest notes” into the pockets and sewing them into the seams of clothing.

“I made this item you are going to buy, but I didn’t get paid for it,” their message reads. It urges shoppers to help pressure Zara into paying them. The workers were employed by third-party manufacturer Bravo Tekstil, which closed suddenly in 2016. The factory’s owner took several months of wages owed to its workers and disappeared. Bravo also produced garments for stores Mango and Next.

The protest notes were found in clothing sold in the Zara store in Istanbul, near the factory where the unpaid workers made them. Zara has 2,100 stores in 88 countries and the brand produced over a billion units in 2016. The notes were placed in collaboration with the Clean Clothes Campaign, an international alliance dedicated to improving worker conditions in the garment industry. The Clean Clothes Campaign has had its eye on Zara for years, noting slave-like conditions in many of the factories that make the brand’s clothing.

The workers have started a petition asking Zara to pay the 155 workers to whom it owes wages:

“We have all labored for Zara/Inditex, Next, and Mango for years. We made these brands’ products with our own hands, earning huge profits for them. We demand now that these brands give us the basic respect to compensate us for our labor. We demand no more than our basic rights! We call on the international community to support our struggle, sign and share to support our campaign!”

Inditex, Zara’s parent company and the largest fashion retailer in the world by sales, said it will create a “hardship fund” for the workers. “This hardship fund would cover unpaid wages, notice indemnity, unused vacation, and severance payments of workers that were employed at the time of the sudden shutdown of their factory in July 2016. We are committed to finding a swift solution for all of those impacted,” the company claimed in a statement. However, it has been nearly a year and a half since the factory closed and the hardship fund was never created.

Instead, the brands have been dragging out negotiations with the workers’ union, offering only to pay about a quarter of the amount owed to the workers. The total amount owed is $757,068 — or about $4,884 per worker — which equals less than 0.01 percent of the company’s sales. In 2016, the company generated $5.8 billion in profits.

Zara’s worker treatment record is poor. In 2011, the company was accused of using suppliers who operated sweatshops. The company issued a statement saying that slave labor violated its code of conduct, but conditions in its factories have continued to be questionable. A report by Changing Markets noted that toxic chemicals generated by factories that make Zara’s products were severely impacting the health of workers and the communities they live in. In 2016 the company was accused of using Syrian refugees, including children, in factories where they were paid well below minimum wage, poorly treated, and exposed to dangerous conditions. 'If anything happens to a Syrian, they will throw him away like a piece of cloth,' said one of the workers.

Meanwhile, Zara’s owner, Amancio Ortega, has occasionally held the top spot as the world’s richest man, jockeying for position with Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates, depending on the current value of their stock portfolios. Perhaps he could spare a little to help the people who helped get him there.