Are there clothing factories in Romania?

For bare life

While most Western consumers are familiar with stories of exploited South and Southeast Asian textile workers, they believe that labels that read “Made in the EU” are the same as “Fair Trade”. It may come as a surprise, then, that the situation of Romanian factory workers involved in the manufacture of clothing for both discount and luxury fashion houses is not much different. Many others prefer to leave their homes and families behind in search of a better life.

In 2015 I started my research on the working conditions in Eastern European clothing factories, especially in Romania, and I also got employed in one of these companies to get an idea for myself. The publication of my results aroused strong criticism from the national authorities and some labels. I was attacked and even sued by one of the largest factories in Romania for disclosing my sources, even though the lawsuit was eventually dropped.

I understood why many workers refused to speak to me; they feared being released. Some agreed anyway, and the stories I heard were the same across Romania and Bulgaria. Dozens told me of people who fainted from the heat and hard work, insults and intimidation from supervisors, impossible quotas, and the difficulty of making ends meet due to low wages that were either paid late or not paid at all. NGOs such as the Clean Clothes Campaign also report similar conditions in their studies.

Low wages, high emigration

Thirty-three year old Cristi Deseanu worked in four Romanian clothing factories before he decided to go to Great Britain despite the lack of qualifications. In his early twenties and with few job opportunities, he was hired by one of the largest clothing companies in his region; that was around the time when Romania joined the EU.

The Italian-owned company produced clothing for dozens of international brands in the mid- to high-end market. Cristi saw sweaters knitted from fine gold thread. Unused threads had to be carefully put into small plastic bags to minimize scrap. He remembers suits worth almost 2,000 euros - an amount that corresponds to more than the annual wage of a worker in the clothing industry.

In April 2014, he was fired for participating in an impromptu strike initiated by employees who were not paid. I found official records from the factory confirming Cristi's story - it happens that factories circulate this type of information among the workforce to set an example that protests are a reason for firing to counter future unrest.

At that time, as a mechanic, Cristi was receiving a net monthly salary of 240 euros; he lived with his parents because he could not afford to have a family of his own. For comparison: simple seamstresses only received 150 euros, the statutory minimum wage. There were also months when he only made 130 euros.

After his dismissal, Cristi found work in a smaller clothing factory, where he earned even less, before he found a better paid job in another city, this time in a factory that produces for luxury brands. It was in operation 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Cristi earned around 550 euros a month, but he said most garment workers would still get the minimum wage. This is confirmed by two employees and a former head of department.

Insults and injuries

In 2019, over 180,000 people were employed in the clothing industry in Romania. Most are paid the statutory minimum wage, which has risen to around 250 euros in recent years, but is still below the estimated subsistence level. According to the National Statistics Office, the average cost of a Romanian household is currently 1,170 euros per month. However, the government does not provide any official information on a living wage. For comparison: In 2018, the average wage of a Chinese garment worker was $ 270 per month, but in some regions it can be over $ 500 per month.[1]

If a sector relies on cheap labor, there is no sustainable socio-economic development, says Cornelia Staritz, Professor of Development Economics at the University of Vienna. In many countries, clothing manufacture is one of the most important sectors of an export-oriented industrialization process. "Since no sophisticated technologies are used," explains Staritz, "this industry is very labor-intensive, which is why low wages are important, and countries can develop areas of activity with higher added value from this sector." the textile sector.

In Romania the trend was reversed. In 1989 there were both capital and labor intensive businesses in the “textile and clothing sector” in the country. After the collapse of communism, the more capital-intensive textile sector was forced out of the market. In principle, it was about Romanian factories producing clothing for Western buyers under special trade preferences, using textiles that were originally obtained from Western European countries. The Romanian textile industry concentrated increasingly on the manufacture of clothing, which mostly resulted in poorly paid jobs. Low wages are one of the main reasons Romanians move to Western Europe today.

Cristi hadn't been working in the new factory long before he was only assigned to the night shift. He was told to work from 9 p.m. to 8 or 9 a.m. He refused. “The working hours were unreasonable,” recalls Cristi. “I felt tired and drowsy. I was 'finished', as they say. ”He quit his job after a phone call during which the department head cursed him. "After I submitted my resignation, I expected the owner to call me to find out what had happened, but it didn't," said Cristi.

Cristi told me these stories while we were standing at the construction site in London's Nine Elms district where he is currently working. One of the largest urban renewal projects in Europe is being realized here with the construction of 18,000 apartments. Cristi is happy to be able to work here, especially since his first jobs in London were either illegal or exhausting and brought in just enough that he could barely make ends meet.

Romanians abroad

According to a study by the OECD, Great Britain has become the second most popular destination for Romanian immigrants after Germany.[2] Romania has a higher rate of emigration than Mexico, China and India, explains sociologist Dumitru Sandu. It is estimated that 17 percent of citizens born in Romania currently live abroad. As part of the European research program Ymobility, Sandu found out that almost half of Romanian young people between the ages of sixteen and thirty-five are planning to emigrate.[3]

Cristi says he does not intend to return to Romania anytime soon. He will most likely move to Germany, where his girlfriend works. She was employed in the same clothing factory, but declined an interview on the grounds that she had suffered greatly from the working conditions in the factory and did not want to remember them.

Silvia (pseudonym) endured the working conditions in the factory that Cristi had laid off for another three years. She watched her colleagues in the boss's office burst into tears and beg for their wages so they could feed their children. She confirmed the stories of women who fainted and were constantly insulted.

Silvia lived with her partner, her son and her mother-in-law in a two-room apartment. She was the only one who worked full-time, and she was desperate when at the end of the month the money she had toiled for ran out. In the six months before our first interview, she received a total of only about 340 euros. Nevertheless, she considered herself lucky because she did not have to pay off any bank loans and could grow vegetables in her garden.

After exposing these abuses, the factory in question was fined. Some labels also said they would support the company in improving working conditions. I was told by the staff that this was also the case for a while: wages were paid on time - food receipts were even given out - and the abuse stopped. However, the situation worsened again after a few months, says Silvia. She decided that she couldn't wait any longer and decided to go abroad. When we last spoke, she was in Italy. She was fine and felt respected. She was one of those Romanians who were lucky enough to have found a job abroad.

For most of the Romanian workers I interviewed, moving abroad was their last option. They didn't really want to emigrate and felt torn inside because they left their families and homes behind. They felt they had no choice but to leave because of the lack of money and, even more, the lack of respect for their country.

Some studies have shown that a few cents more per item of clothing could actually make a difference in worker wages. Perhaps consumers would be willing to spend a little more on a piece of clothing if they knew that this would mean that a worker in another country would receive a living wage. But she was not asked. The factories continue to compete with each other to offer the labels the lowest prices as more and more workers stop playing the game and go abroad in search of a better life.

In the meantime, Silvia has moved to Northern Italy, has a driver's license and was employed as a housekeeper for several families. Cristi emigrated to Germany and is currently unemployed due to the Covid pandemic. Neither of them plan to return to Romania anytime soon.

[1] Sheng Lu, wage level for garment workers worldwide (updated 2017) .↩

[2] OECD, Talent Abroad: A Review of Romanian Emigrants, OECD, 2019. ↩

[3] Ymobility®

Original in English. First published in IWMpost No. 124 (autumn / winter 2019).

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Copyright information on images, graphics and videos is noted directly next to the images. Cover picture: Romanian textile factory. Photo: © Laura Ștefănuț