Labour on a Shoestring
The latest research from the 'Change Your Shoes' Campaign.
‘Made in Europe’ sounds better than ‘Made in China’ right? But what does ‘Made in Europe’ really mean?
New facts brought to light this month by the ‘Change Your Shoes’ Campaign, show that hidden behind much European shoe production is an outsourcing system that uses cheap labour in Eastern Europe and the Balkan states, where workers often face wage deficits that are comparable to China, and damaging piece-rate contracts.
Outward Processing Trade
Researchers traced a number of shoe product lines labelled ‘Made in Italy’ or ‘Made in Germany’ to find where the products were actually made.
Contrary to expectation, this uncovered a system called ‘Outward Processing Trade’ which sees brands ship ready-cut shoe parts for assembly out to low-wage nearby countries such as Macedonia and Albania where tens of thousands of workers assemble products for piece-rate pay, costing significantly less than if these were produced in central Europe. The shoes are then shipped back for labelling and retail, sold as ‘Italian’ or ‘German’.
This trade forms a huge part of growing industries in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Albania, Romania and Poland, and means wages are often squeezed to a level that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to live with dignity.
Poor Workers' Rights
As many workers earn a wage based on units produced and not hours worked, they have to take unpaid overtime or neglect to follow safety procedures (that protect them from glue and hazardous chemicals) in order to maintain high productivity.
In many factories workers face extreme cold in winter and temperatures so high in summer that they frequently faint. Health and safety risks were also high due to exposure to toxic chemicals.
The report – called ‘Labour on a Shoestring’ – shows that wages for shoe workers in these states are far below the poverty line, coming in around 25-35% of an estimated minimum living wage level. This is similar to the wage deficit faced by shoe workers in China, and in some cases more extreme.
In order for Albanian, Macedonian and Romanian factory workers – the majority of whom are women – to earn enough to support themselves and their families, wages need to be four or five times higher.
The report looks at wages across Europe and compares the buying power of workers making shoes in different countries. To afford the cost of a litre of milk, workers in Albania and Romania would have to work for a full hour, compared to just 4 minutes on the UK minimum wage.
One Romaniam worker said:
“The most difficult thing is to pay for heating in winter. I am afraid to look at the bill. If we fail to pay for longer than two months, they cut us off, the prices keep on growing. Our parents, who work in Spain, are sending us money every few months and that’s how we get by” .
The ‘Change Your Shoes’ Campaign – a collaboration between 15 organisations in a wide number of European countries – is working to uncover facts about where our shoes come from, their environmental impact, and call for human rights to be upheld for workers.
The campaign is calling on European policy makers, and on brands, to take steps to uncover global supply chains both voluntarily and through legislation. We want supply chain data that holds brands accountable for the environmental impact of their products and the conditions workers face.
By governments requiring standard information from brands about the locations of their supply chains, assessments about their due diligence with respect to human rights, and data on conditions, rights and wages, collective solutions could be built to solve issues in these complex supply chain systems.
To get more involved, sign up to Labour Behind the Label’s email list and get the latest updates.
You can read the ‘Labour on a Shoestring’ report online.
What can you do?
We have recently updated our product guides to shoes, trainers and walking boots. Buy from companies that receive a best Ethical Consumer rating for Supply Chain Management.
Blackspot, Bourgeois Boheme, Beyond Skin, Birkenstock, Eco Vegan Shoes, Po-Zu, soleRebels, Freerangers, Green Shoes, Vivobarefoot.
Eco Vegan Shoes, Mammut
Ethletic, Inov-8, Veja, Vivobarefoot