A ruthless factory owner. A shuttered sewing facility. Unpaid laborers reportedly walking into a Zara store in Istanbul to attach tags saying, “I made this item you are going to buy, but I didn’t get paid for it.” It’s all part of an ugly web of events that Zara’s parent company, Inditex, has been drawn into over the last year.
Last week, the Associated Press reported that shoppers in Istanbul were finding desperate notes in their clothing, allegedly sewn on by workers who claimed that they had not been paid for their labor at the Bravo Tekstil factory in Turkey. While it is hard to confirm the authenticity of these notes since the workers did not identify themselves by name, the story contained within these brief messages squares with Inditex’s own explanation of the events that unfolded.
Today, an Inditex spokesperson provided a written statement to Fast Company explaining that the company had indeed been manufacturing clothing at Bravo Tekstil, along with other European-based fast fashion labels like Mango and Next. Around 155 laborers worked in the factory. In July 2016, the factory shut down due to the “fraudulent disappearance of the Bravo factory’s owner,” Inditex says. This owner, the company added, took all the money the fashion companies had paid and disappeared without paying the workers, who had already made the clothing.
According to the Inditex spokesperson, “Inditex has met all of its contractual obligations to Bravo Tekstil.” But the question at the heart of this story is not whether Inditex has met its obligations to the factory, but rather whether it has met its obligations to the workers who created the garments it went on to sell in stores. By working with this allegedly unethical factory owner, Inditex ultimately ended up selling clothes on Zara shelves that were made using unpaid labor. Indeed, Inditex made profits from these clothes.
For context, Inditex is the largest fashion retailer in the world by sales, with 7,292 stores around the globe. In 2016, it generated 23.3 billion euros ($27 billion) in revenue, and $5 billion euros ($5.8 billion) in profits. In its 2016 shareholder report, it says, “Inditex makes a commitment to play a conscientious role in promoting Human Rights, working proactively in this area. The Group also undertakes to avoid or mitigate the negative consequences on human rights of its own activities.”
Inditex says it’s in the process of creating a “hardship fund”–along with Mango and Next–to help these workers. It is working on this proposal along with IndustriALL, the local branch of a global workers’ union that represents 50 million laborers in 140 countries. “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,” the statement reads. “We are committed to finding a swift solution for all of those impacted.”
However, it has now been a full year and four months since the factory closed, and the hardship fund has still not been created. The Inditex spokesperson confirmed that no money at all has been transferred from Inditex to the workers who made the garments that brands like Zara sold in stores.
Taking Matters Into Their Own Hands
In September, more than a year after the closure of the factory, 140 former Bravo workers created a petition on Change.org because they were tired of waiting for this money to materialize. It might also explain the timing of the news that desperate notes were found in garments sewn into clothing at Zara stores. These notes were only found in Istanbul stores, which would suggest that workers actually went into stores and sewed the tags onto clothes in the stores.
The petition also sheds some light on why Inditex has still not compensated these workers. The workers explain that their union representatives have been negotiating with Inditex, Mango, and Next on their behalf, trying to get the money that they are owed. But the fashion brands have been dragging out the negations and countering with offers that amount to just over a quarter of what the workers are asking for, according to the petition:
“For 12 months, we waited for the conclusion of these negotiations with patience and hope. To prevent any disruptions to the negotiations, we endured them in silence. However, after an entire year the brands declared that they will only pay just over a quarter of our claim. In other words, the brands accepted their liability, but they thought we deserve no more than their scraps.”
According to Clean Clothes Campaign, an international alliance devoted to improving working conditions in the global garment industry, the workers are seeking 2,739,281.30 Turkish lira, which, in the case of Inditex, amounts to less than 0.01% of net sales for only the first quarter of 2017.
In the petition, which has now been signed by more than 20,000 people from around the world, the workers say that the powerful multinational fashion brands are responsible for bringing about change in their own individual lives–by paying the wages they are owed–and in the industry more broadly. “Global brands gain most of the profits from this production,” they write. “They have been proven time and again to be the real bosses in the industry, determining the conditions on the shop floor.”
In their statement, the workers hold their immediate boss–the factory owner–accountable for stealing their wages. But in the end, Inditex, Mango, and Next have the power and capacity to make things right. It’s been more than a year since these workers lost their jobs, and it’s still unclear when, or if, these fashion companies will give them the money they are owed.