Names marked with an asterisk* have been changed to protect interviewees’ identities.
Romania and Bulgaria – On July 10, on the outskirts of Covasna, a small mountainous town in Romania’s central region of Transylvania, about 30 garment factory workers who were recently made redundant launched a protest outside their workplace – the Textile Blue Wash factory.
With the building’s gate locked behind them, and its yard empty, they demanded their jobs back and called for salaries of up to two months to be paid.
“When we came here a week ago, the gate of the factory was closed. It was a shock. The factory owner was nowhere to be found, and could not be reached,” said Marina*, a 45-year-old employee, her voice rising from the group’s angry chatter.
“Since then, we have been gathering here. We want to be paid, receive our lunch tickets and we demand an explanation for the sudden closure of the plant.”
For almost a year, the mother-of-two woke up at 5am and prepared breakfast for her family before taking the factory bus from her nearby village to work.
At 7am she would be on the factory floor, making clothes until 4pm.
Now, given the financial crisis the family has been plunged into, her eldest daughter does not know whether she will be able to enrol at university and move to the capital Bucharest, as previously planned.
Al Jazeera called the general manager of Textile Blue Wash, Anghel Gigi Marius, in July; he said he would pay the workers, without elaborating further, and cut the call very short.
Two months on, those promises are yet to be fulfilled.
Romania is one of Europe’s biggest garment producers and the sector is among its top exports.
European fashion brands have long found a foothold in the Eastern European country, with at least 400,000 people officially and informally employed in the industry.
But according to activists, a large number of Romanian garment workers are living on the poverty line, earning below the minimum wage as they are regularly abused by their bosses.
A study published in May by Clean Clothes Campaign, which lobbies to improve conditions for garment factory workers, said overtime – up to 15 hours a week – often goes unpaid in Romania, with the group claiming many workers were living in “survival mode”.
Factories were poorly ventilated, the group said, while the denial of basic human rights by managers – “they often need to find a replacement worker in order to take toilet breaks” – were common.
Marina and some other 70 colleagues, mostly women between 29 and 58, were all paid the monthly minimum gross salary of 2,080 RON ($482), which translates to $264 after tax.
The jeans the workers used to produce sell for approximately $100 to $150 for one pair, half of their monthly wage.
“We often did overtime,” Marina said. “Still, the pay never changed.”
According to its website, the Textile Blue Wash group was founded in the city of Brasov in 2008.
Eight years later, it declared a turnover of 8.69 million RON ($2m), listing German luxury brand Hugo Boss as its largest customer, alongside other companies including United Colors of Benetton, an Italian label that describes itself as a “responsible group” with a watchful eye “to human dignity”.
Asked by Al Jazeera about their relationship with the factory, Hugo Boss simply said there was no “direct business relationship”, and the Benetton Group said it stopped its collaboration in July 2017 because the supplier did not comply with its environmental policies.
We were not allowed to go to the bathroom during our shifts, only during breaks.
Factory manager Marius hired all workers in Covasna last October, after taking over the business.
The first two months went smoothly, Marina said.
But soon, “he showed up very rarely. And when he did, he was extremely rude and called us names when we asked for our salaries,” she said.
“Production depended on the jeans orders, sometimes we produced hundreds of items per day. We had breaks, though we skipped them. We were not allowed to go to the bathroom during our shifts, only during breaks.”
Marina and several of her colleagues are now relying on regular bank loans to survive.
“There are other factories in the county, but they are too far for us to reach,” she said. “I don’t know how my family is going to cope now, merely relying on my husband’s salary.”
Since the closure, only 16 workers have found a new job. The rest are living on social benefits.
This system of exploitation relies on a legal framework, which hinders trade unions by limiting their access to factory premises.
Dumitru Costin, the president of the National Trade Union Bloc (BNS), Romania’s second largest union group, said BNS only represented around 6,000 workers in the textile and garment industry, less than five percent of the total – and he blames a reform in the 2011 labour law which was widely criticised as severely weakening workers’ rights.
“The law has restrained employees’ freedom of association and their right to form unions and strike, making it very hard for unions to reach out to workers,” he said. “We have recorded cases of internal mobbing, in which employers terminated the contracts of workers who started to organise a union.”
A new “social dialogue” law was also adopted. The national collective bargaining agreement (CBA), which previously set the minimum pay and the basic conditions for the entire economy, was abolished.
Worried by the new labour status quo, the European Union has repeatedly demanded changes.
Christian Wigand, spokesperson for Employment and Social Affairs of the European Commission, said the EU had issued recommendations to improve the Social Dialogue law, while calling on Romania to ensure the minimum wage was set based on objective criteria, consistent with job creation and competitiveness.
“The principle of an adequate minimum wage has been enshrined in the European Pillar of Social Rights,” he added.
Bucharest says amendments to the current social dialogue law are now under parliamentary debate, also following negotiations with the International Labour Organization (ILO).
Tara Rangarajan, head of brand partnerships for the ILO’s programme Better Work, which is focused on the garment industry, underscored the importance of allowing workers to organise.
“The benefits of adhering to national laws and international labour standards, and ensuring workers have the right to collectively bargain, results in both improved working conditions and more competitive businesses,” she said.
Fearing repercussions, workers from Alexandria, a city southwest of Bucharest, declined interviews, agreeing only to write to Al Jazeera through messaging apps.
One of them said she worked in a local clothing factory under a regime of “terror”.
“You cannot resist, insults and harassment are the norm,” she wrote.
Another one referred to it as “the prison, where infectious slavery” goes on.
Changes to the country’s tax code have also added to the workers’ challenges.
In January 2018, Bucharest shifted to the employee the burden of social contributions payable by the employer.
The Ministry of Labour told Al Jazeera the move was meant to reduce tax evasion, and has achieved positive results.
The new provisions, while decreasing income tax from 16 percent to 10 percent, now provide 35 percent in mandatory social contributions to be paid by the worker.
Employers had to increase employees’ gross salaries with the contributions that they previously made.
But a vast number of employers have refused to do so, despite applying the new tax rules, trade unionist Costin said.
“Last year, more than 1.1 million workers’ salaries across Romania were directly affected,” he said. “The textile and garment industry was one of those affected. But workers are scared to come forward.”
The new fiscal move hits people who are at a higher risk of poverty, such as Romanians in rural areas like Covasna.
Romania’s poverty rate is already 10 percent higher than the EU’s average; across the countryside, people are six times more likely to face poverty than in cities.
“People in rural communities accept lower wages as they are subsistence farmers and have means to survive. They grow their own food and have animals. They do not protest because they fear companies might close and move to another village in retaliation. This leads to an easy exploitation of the workforce,” Costin said.
Without this job, our families wouldn't be able to make ends meet. We grow our own food, we don't buy anything from the shops.
North of Bucharest, in the small city of Paulesti, Al Jazeera talked to a female garment worker on her way home from a local factory.
“Our Romanian boss is a former worker herself. She understands many of our issues. We can even have holiday,” said 52-year-old Andrea*, adding her colleagues voluntarily work overtime occasionally to help finish orders, mostly for British brands.
Andrea lives with her retired husband and son.
Chickens and farm animals roam around in her garden, which is lush with prune and apple trees, berries, tomatoes and vegetables.
“We are all paid the minimum salary. But the more skilled ones get more lunch tickets,” she said.
“Without this job, our families wouldn’t be able to make ends meet. We grow our own food, we don’t buy anything from the shops. I also help other relatives. After the factory shift, I work here.”
Reports of poor factory conditions come against the backdrop of rising emigration in Romania, a country of 19 million.
Since 2007, when Romania joined the EU, emigration has increased by 162 percent – it now has the largest rate of emigration across the bloc.
To cope with a shortage of garment factory workers, some businesses employ labourers from Vietnam, Pakistan, India, China and Laos.
The Ministry of Labour does not have specific information about the number of non-EU workers in the garment sector. According to government data, 30,000 non-EU workers have so far accessed the labour market this year.
But the use of foreign employees appeared to be a taboo among factory owners.
In a foreign-owned garment factory in the city of Slatina, in Romania’s south, a member of the management declined Al Jazeera’s requests to visit the premises and refused to confirm the presence of foreign workers.
However, a local labour inspector, the factory gatekeeper and nearby shop owners confirmed there were more than a dozen Nepalese employees inside.
Crossing the Danube, the picture remains bleak.
Bulgaria’s garment and textile sector was worth 2 billion euros ($2.2bn) in 2018, accounting for around 10 percent of the country’s total exports – mostly which headed to German, French, Greek and Italian brands.
Unpaid salaries over the years have seen protests erupt.
In April, having failed to receive three consecutive pay cheques in a row, 100 garment workers filed a complaint to the Executive Agency of the General Labour Inspectorate.
To avoid poor working conditions and the lowest minimum gross salary across Europe, 560 lev ($315), or 430 lev ($242) after tax, many women have started working remotely, from home.
There was no proper lighting, no windows. It felt like being in a bunker. Managers were yelling and screaming at the workers. We worked non-stop, also preparing the packaging and skipping lunch.
Fifty-year-old Maria* learnt how to stitch over 30 years ago, in her native Petrich, a town in southwestern Bulgaria, a few kilometres from the Greek border.
She went into debt to buy five second-hand sewing machines for the different stages of production, along with tables and chairs, almost 4,000 lev ($2,200).
But now, she can produce some 50 tops a day. Each brings almost two lev ($1.10), while easier items like T-shirts, are worth about half.
She receives her cheque at the beginning of each month from the Greece-exporting factory she works for.
During a difficult month, Maria makes 700 lev ($394), while a good month can yield 1,200 lev ($676).
“You cannot make this amount if you work in a factory,” she told Al Jazeera.
“Foreign factories nowadays are taking advantage of the fact that there is no money in the country and that women really need to work to help their families or to simply survive.”
Her last stint at a plant was in 2016.
“There were 20 people working there, producing women’s clothes.” Maria said, sitting in her sewing room.
“There was no proper lighting, no windows. It felt like being in a bunker. Managers were yelling and screaming at the workers. We worked non-stop, also preparing the packaging and skipping lunch.”
At 5pm, she said, workers of Roma background came to take over and work a night shift.
They were treated even worse; they did not have contracts and were paid in cash – just 3.9 lev ($2.2) per hour – for working up to five hours a day.
Maria was in charge of supervising them, working between 10 and 12 hours a day in total, but she received no overtime pay.
With her Bulgarian colleagues earning between 300 and 700 ($170 to $394) before tax, she said witnessing the exploitation of the Roma workers was “heartbreaking”.
Radina Bankova chairs the Bulgarian Association of Apparel and Textile Producers and Exporters Member of Euratex (BAATPE), which represents 120-member companies of varying sizes, employing between 15,000 and 18,000 workers.
“There are no regulations,” Bankova told Al Jazeera. “For the past 10 years, the government has considered the garment sector as a sector with a low added value.”
By the time of publishing, Bulgarian government officials had not responded to several emails sent by Al Jazeera seeking comment, and had not returned phone calls.
“Brands should pay suppliers much better,” Bankova said. “In this way, we could invest in the industry further.”
Like Romanians, Bulgarians are also leaving their country seeking better work abroad.
Since 1990, some 1.5 million people have left the country of about seven million.
When Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, there were 165,000 textile workers. Today only 90,000 remain.
Sofia, like Romania, is eyeing foreign labourers, and is currently negotiating agreements with non-EU countries to enable their recruitment.
But trade unions favour the introduction of a “living wage”, which takes into account the needs of the workers on the ground, to encourage Bulgarians to return or, simply to stay.
Elena*, 40, is a supervisor at Bulgarian factory in Petrich that exports to Italy and Germany, producing for Gerry Weber, Armani and Henry Cotton’s, among others.
She earns 800 lev ($450) and claims working conditions are “good”.
Still, as the sole breadwinner in the family, she supplements her income with loans to pay for bills. Her unemployed husband, a former truck driver, and three children depend on her.
A four-member family needs three times her salary to cover basic needs, trade union studies show.
“We are ashamed,” she said, “we cannot support our children the way we would like to.”