The realities of working in Europe’s shoe manufacturing peripheries

In the ever progressing march for faster and cheaper products, the production net is drawing back in to Europe. What does this mean for our products? Made in Europe is surely a good thing?

While certainly EU laws protect central European workers in many ways, out towards the Eastern fringe of Europe in non-EU member countries including Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Albania and recently added member states Romania and Poland, the story is quite different. New research – Labour On a Shoe String – published as part of the Change Your Shoes campaign, has uncovered wage levels for workers in the shoe industry are shockingly low and conditions very poor.

Here are some statistics. Across the region, wages for shoe workers are 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. milkTo afford the cost of a pint of milk, workers in Albania and Romania would have to work for 1 hour, compared to just 4 minutes on the UK minimum wage. In order for Albanian, Macedonian and Romanian factory workers – the majority of them women – to earn enough to support themselves and their families, wages need to be between four and five times higher.

“We are renting a flat in the city and the most difficult thing is to pay for heating in winter. I am afraid to look at the heating bill this month. 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,” said one Romanian worker.

The outwardprocessing2report also uncovers the extent to which products that are labelled as ‘made in Italy’ or ‘made in Germany’ are actually part-produced in Eastern Europe and the Balkan states,. The process, called ‘outward processing trade’ sees Italian and German brands ship shoe parts for assembly out to low wage nearby countries such as Macedonia, Albania etc. where workers assemble products for piece rate pay, costing significantly less , and then shoes are shipped back for labelling and retail. As many workers earn a wage based on units produced and not hours worked, they often work unpaid overtime or refuse 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.

The evidence is clear: the problems that are endemic and systemic to the shoe and clothing industry are a global issue, and they do not stop at Europe’s borders.