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Shoes ‘Made in Europe’ – for Starvation Wages

Zurich/Lausanne,

For the first time, new research has revealed the true cost of Eastern Europe’s shoe manufacturing industry: tens of thousands of workers producing shoes sold as ‘Italian’ or ‘German’ – and often earning even less than their counterparts in China. Until now, brand-name companies have shown far too little interest in the conditions under which their shoes are produced.

© Davide Del Giudice

Over 24 billion pairs of shoes were manufactured globally in 2014. Whilst the majority is produced in Asia, Europe also plays an important role in the sector, particularly when it comes to highly priced leather shoes. Italy, Portugal and Spain are collectively responsible for producing 23 percent of all leather shoes, with Italy dominating production in the European region.

The most labour-intensive stages in the shoe manufacturing process are often carried out in Eastern Europe and the Balkan states. This is due to two reasons: close proximity to the European market, which ensures short delivery times, and extremely low wages. The Labour on a Shoestring report (PDF, 1.6 MB) reveals the realities of life for workers in shoe factories in six European countries. The biggest issue is wages that are far too low. The statutory minimum wages in Albania, Macedonia and Romania, which stand at EUR 140, EUR 145 and EUR 156 per month respectively, are even lower than the legal minimum in China. 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. 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 collapse. 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.

Our company report shows that brand-name businesses and retailers have, until now, paid far too little attention to the conditions under which their shoes are manufactured. This was true for all of the 23 companies we surveyed for our report titled Trampling workers rights underfoot (PDF, 26 MB). Eleven companies couldn’t provide any information at all, and even the twelve that could give an answer did not provide solid evidence that basic labour laws were being adhered to or that those workers producing shoes for them were earning a living wage. The ‘Change Your Shoes’ campaign, a partnership of 18 European and Asian organisations, calls upon brand-name companies and retailers to carry out comprehensive due-diligence checks to guarantee that human rights are respected and labour laws are adhered to along their entire supply chain. In particular, it is crucial that wages are increased gradually to be in line with a living wage.

Further Information:

Contact: Timo Kollbrunner, Public Eye, +41 (0)44 228 70 25, timo.kollbrunner[at]publiceye.ch

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