Oksana Dutchak: “The Ukrainian state subsidises workers who produce clothes for big brands”

An interview with Oksana Dutchak about the wages and working conditions of seamstresses in Ukraine.

Oksana Dutchak has presented the results of her research “Wages and working conditions of the garment industry workers in Ukraine” within TEXTUS exhibition at Visual Culture Research Center (VCRC). The research was conducted in January-March 2017. Political Critique has interviewed Oksana about its details.

Oksana, is this your own project?

No, I was working within a bigger project led by the international organisation, Clean Clothes Campaign. It’s the biggest in the world coalition of non-government organizations and trade unions in the garment industry. It was founded twenty years ago, when the first big scandals around brand clothing took place, and started as a local initiative. Now they are working all over the world, with the focus on Central and Eastern Europe. The CCC knew almost nothing about Ukraine, and the country is situated within their scope of interest. That’s why they initiated the research to find out about the situation of Ukrainian workers who produce clothes for big European brands here. By doing this the CCC is trying to include Ukraine in the scope of their vision and activity- in order to establish contact. The financing of the project was provided by the Rosa Luxembourg foundation. I was offered to conduct the interviews and the first project stage.

Is the research finished now, and do you have the final results?

We have finished collecting information at factories and have the preliminary data now. The research is not finished yet, but we can already talk about some conclusions. Right after my lecture at VCRC, I headed to Budapest for the regional CCC convention. We presented the results of our work there. I spoke about the preliminary conclusions of my own research in Ukraine. In the future, I will join the campaign for better working conditions for the seamstresses in Ukraine and continue my collaboration with the CCC.

Could you tell us more about the Clean Clothes Campaign?

Their activity is aimed at promoting ethical consumption and improving working conditions in the garment industry. The Clean Clothes Campaign is committed to changing people’s attitude towards clothes: the price for a certain item is not only important, but also the conditions of its production. They carry out research projects and campaigns in different countries. The organization has a notion of an urgent appeal (a call for urgent action). Those are the cases that need immediate intervention. To answer such appeals, immediate campaigns are organized on the spot where the problem has occured, in the customer countries and elsewhere, providing international solidarity and support. Campaigning in the countries where the production factories are located is important so that the local workers would be ready to fight for their rights. If the workers are not ready to act upon themselves, then spreading information, drawing attention to the problem in Western countries and putting pressure on the brands is not enough to change the situation for the better. Of course moods among the workers are less tense in comparison to the heavy industry. Except for Bangladesh, where the garment industry is almost the biggest sector of the economy. Sometimes the CCC is looking for workers who are ready to take actions, but it is often that nothing comes out of it for various reasons.

No work, no bread. I know what that means.

The main research goal is for the CCC to get the big picture of what is going on in the countries of production, and to update it constantly. Based on the research results, they identify the main problems in a certain country. They then make brochures and reports, trying to create awareness of the problem in the countries because the main cluster of consumers will be there. Since outsourcing has become a popular practice and big brands have moved their production from Europe to the peripheral countries, in the East and South America, the CCC has started using their position here to put pressure on brands. They have established a dialogue with the governments and brands such as Boss, Adidas, H&M. But this is a very long and slow process.

The situation with the seamstresses’ rights in Western Europe is not as critical as, for example, it is in Central or Eastern Europe.

If the CCC organises protests in Western Europe, they do it the way it was done, for example, to support the workers in Asia and Latin America the participants protest in front of brand stores to show solidarity, and hand out flyers. The situation with the seamstresses’ rights in Western Europe is not as critical as, for example, it is in Central or Eastern Europe. However single sad incidents occur even in the West. For example, a participant from Italy told us at the last CCC convention that famous brand shoes are produced in the Southern (much poorer) part of Italy. Only people from a local Chinese immigrant community work there. Of course they get paid two times less than Italians, if the latter were to do the same job. We can only guess how bad the working conditions are there as we didn’t have a chance to talk to these people – they are very hard to contact. In order to help them in any way, we need a mediator who would also be able to speak Chinese.

What kind of situation can be described as an urgent appeal?

To give an example of an urgent appeal when the CCC is starting a campaign in a certain country, I can tell you about a recent case in Romania. A Romanian journalist made a report about a garment factory in Transylvania and the working conditions there – they were dreadful, as you can guess. As a result, the factory owner filed a law suit demanding an enormous compensation for her alleged defamation, despite the dreadful conditions she described being true. That journalist had then somehow found out about the CCC and contacted them, the organization helped her spread the campaign. CCC members did their job in Western Europe by contacting the brands that worked with that factory who then pressed the factory to withdraw the suit.

Sandblasting leads to an uncurable mortal decease called silicosis.

Another scandalous story relates to a practice popular in the Turkish jeans industry, called sandblasting. It is a process used to give jeans a distressed and pre-worn look. During this process, workers shoot abrasive sand onto denim jeans under high pressure. That causes damage to their respiratory tracts and lungs. Sandblasting leads to an uncurable mortal decease called silicosis. One man, a Turkish Kurd, has been working at a factory in Istanbul for 14 years, doing sandblasting – and contracted silicosis, like most his colleagues. He and the CCC organised a campaign that resulted in the ban of this technique in Turkey.

What are the main problems faced by the workers at garment factories in Ukraine?
Low wages are the main problem. When I presented the accounts to the convention participants, they were shocked by Ukrainian figures – because a seamstresse’s wage in Ukraine is the lowest in Europe. There are two indexes for any country used by the CCC. The first is the legal minimal wage, meaning that it’s illegal to pay less in terms of the national law. The second is the living wage (a wage that ensures decent life) – it’s an index that reflects the wage that according to the CCC the employers should pay their workers to ensure a decent life for them. We have also asked the workers, how much is a “decent wage” for them. Considering that in the answers they said they needed the money for food, clothes, education, recreation, medicine, housekeeping, hygene, vacations and savings, the average sum was ridiculously low. The numbers get converted into euro, and the result is less than 300 EUR. Of course, several hundred euros here is not the same as in Serbia. We need to, for example, take into account the inflation rate, the parity of the purchasing power etc. But even after that the average they get paid is three times less than the living wage.

One of the factories we researched didn’t even pay it’s workers a minimal wage – they got paid around 2000 UAH instead. This is a direct violation of the law.

What about the working conditions of the seamstresses?

The working conditions are relatively normal, if compared to Eastern countries. This is the reason why brands are now talking about the relocation of their production from Eastern countries to Central and Eastern Europe. This tendency has emerged as the result of the 2013 Rana Plaza falldown in Savar, Bangladesh. It was a garment industry complex comprising of five factories that produced clothes for brands such as Walmart, Primark, Mango and others less known. Visible cracks appeared in the walls of the building, but the factory owners ignored the warning and forced the workers to get to work the next day. The building was in a dreadful state, the four upper floors were added illegally, the safety rules were generally unkept – for these reasons more than a thousand people died that day.

People at our factories don’t die because the buildings are well-constructed. These are the former Soviet factories, the remains of the Soviet system. Of course their state is not perfect, but they have been repaired and renovated recently. That’s why such tragedies won’t occur at Ukrainian factories.

The employers cannot force the seamstresses to work overtime, this is an economic coercion.

The workers we interviewed didn’t complain specifically about the bad working conditions. Instead they said that it’s very hot inside in the summer – up to 40 degrees °C. It is much easier to heat the factories than to cool them. Most other things are also violations of the law. One of the examples are violations of the legislative norms about overtimes. Seamstresses often have to stay at work half an hour or an hour later. Their bosses can ask them to work for several hours on Saturday, especially during the peak season in the summer, when seamstresses sometimes work 60 hours a week. Seasonal collections are the feature of the fashion industry, and the workers have very little time to complete the order. No one is forcing them, they do it themselves. The employers cannot force them to work overtime, but this is still an economic coercion: seamstresses are forced to work overtime because it is the only way to make some money in a small town. They often have to work overtime merely to meet the high output rate. According to the CCC definition, this is forced overtime. These excessive hours spent to meet the order deadlines aren’t always paid in accordance with the Labour Code. The law forbids working sixty hours a week. Despite the fact that conditions in other factories are not that bad, we had a factory in our research that didn’t pay for the overtime at all.

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Have there been any cases of harm to health during production?

The workers didn’t talk about any professional injuries. But they complained about allergies, dermatites and pain in joints.

How much do factory seamstresses get paid in general?

According to our research, the average net wage of a seamstress is around 2700 UAH. But as I mentioned earlier, this is only the preliminary calculation. Most of the factories we researched pay the minimal wage – 3200 hrn (the actual wage the workers get is 2500-2600 UAH). One of the factories pays less than the minimal wage, thus violating the law. One factory has higher wages than all the others, and the working conditions there are much better – but that is because that factory has mostly been working for one brand since 2010. That’s why this brand is more responsible about its obligations as an employer and is partly concerned about working conditions. If a brand has been working with a certain factory for several years, it implies some social responsibility. The workers’ situation is better at factories that have one stable client than at those where clients change often (a factory can produce for 10-15 different brands simultaneously). When the turnover of orders at a factory is high, the brands don’t care what happens there.

The most urgent problem is catastrophically low wages. This leads to the paradox: the Ukrainian state subsidises the workers who produce clothes for big brands. How do people usually survive having such low wages? They sometimes receive subsidies for utilities – old-age pensions (if they work post-retirement) or disability pensions (if they have a disability). At the same time, the workers have to keep the household running, therefore it is their means of survival: otherwise they cannot support themselves and the family. On the other hand, the local public transport fare is 2 UAH. Cheap public transport gets subsidies as well. The state is in fact subsidising the survival of people who sew for these cool brands.

But why do seamstresses have such low wages?

The wages are low not because the owner is greedy – it’s a systemic problem.

The wages are low not because the owner is greedy (though this also can be the case sometimes) – this is a systemic problem, effecting many different countries. It is the same for China and for Bangladesh. The brands are trying to defeat their competitors by lowering prices for their product. What expenses can they cut? The expences for wages of the people who produce their clothes. That’s why the brands are trying to find the cheapest factories and buy labour for the cheapest price. The factories, in their turn, are competing among themselves, offering the lowest possible production price to the brands.

Who is responsible for the worker’s situation at the factories? The factory owners or the brands?

The problem is that the brands would very much like the factories to be the only responsible side. Most international documents – international conventions and declarations on labour rights – have no legally binding force and don’t lead to any sanctions. But the most recent ones directly say that the companies are partly responsible for the working conditions and the wages in their supply chain.

The internationally-known brands and their contractors aren’t subjects to the international law, just like the other transnational corporations. There is no such international organisation defending workers’ rights, whose resolutions would have legal binding force so that their violation would lead to real sanctions. There are international government organisations, such as the UN International Labour Organization (ILO) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The latter has a complaints system, but they are just mediators and don’t impose punishment. As for conventions, among all of them these are the most important: Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises from OECD and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Though this UN document is only recommendational, it is considered the most up-to-date text, containing an exhaustive list of rights acknowledged by the UN. The document also names the ones responsible for respecting those rights.

In case of death at a factory – does it concern the brand owners?

Of course it does. This is a reputational loss for them that could lead to profit decrease.

Does anyone control what happens at the factories? Perhaps the brands themselves?

Unfortunately there are no structural prerequisites for that. Of course the factories regularly undergo the fire inspection etc. As garment factories in Ukraine are quite big industrial buildings where tens and hundreds of people work, it’s hard to leave them unnoticed. But the corruption problem remains. Of course it is possible that the situation is worse at clandestine factories, but it is difficult to find them. Also, we should not forget about the two year moratorium on labor inspections in Ukraine that lasted until 2017.

What about trade unions? Why haven’t the workers created them yet?

From our research we know about only one attempt to create an independent union at a factory where brutal violation took place. But that was an exception as a result of the determination and leadership of those women and their contacts at the local KVPU (Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine). But such initiatives disappear quickly because the employers fire union organizers. Formal unions are popular instead, but they are in fact “yellow” and do nothing. There are no independent unions.

[Yellow union is a term used to describe trade unions whose leaders pursue the policy of class collaboration between the workers and the businessmen against the interests of the working class. – Kateryna Semchuk]

How many factories did you research?

Three. According to the CCC conditions, a representative sample is needed in order to conduct a research: 10% of workers is needed if the total amount of people employed at a factory is less than 100, and 5% if the number is more than 100.

We have included a fourth factory in the results, but only partly, because we had problems there. When Artem Chapay, who I worked on the interviews with, arrived at the factory, the research was disrupted: one of the workers told the manager what Artem was doing there. The management learned the names of all four of our respondents. Artem almost got arrested by the police who were probably called by the factory owners. In such a small town as that one, the factory owner is like a baron.

Part of the CCC research policy is the anonimity of the research participants in order to ensure their safety, so that they do not to lose their jobs. If the management learns their names, we cannot fully include the factory in the research. Though the seamstresses’ anonimity was disclosed, we have decided to include it in the research anyway, because the situation there was very bad, but at the same time we have decided to name neither the brand, nor the city or the factory. After that incident we did everything to make sure that we are really talking to the workers, not to the management.

Why don’t you reveal the brand and factory names? Are they going to be known soon?

We don’t do that for several reasons. Before the certain research stage, the data about brands and factories should remain insider information in order not to spoil the process, and not to cause trouble to the people who could loose their jobs. The brand names aren’t revealed because if the CCC can link a certain brand with the factory where the problem occurred, they try to contact that brand directly and look for ways to solve the problem. The factories aren’t revealed because the brands can cancel their orders before the solution is found. Otherwise they just promise not to work with that factory ever again, and the workers loose their jobs.

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When did Western giant brands enter the Ukrainian market? Did it happen recently?

They’ve been present in Ukraine for many years, starting in the early 2000s, possibly from the late 90s as well. Most factories, 50 to 90%, sew for export. That doesn’t mean they don’t sew for Ukraine at all. But it is rather unpromising and unprofitable business because there is no high demand here.

Does the product they sew get to the Ukrainian market straight away?

All the products made in this town come back here through the shops – four times more expensive.

No, as far as I know the garment factories don’t have rights to sell what they sew for the brands. As a result, all the products come back here four times more expensive. But of course they are trying to bend that rule. We have seen shops open right in front of the factories, where the clothes they produce for brands is sold as their own. Or just very similar clothes, which after all is not officially forbidden.

What can you say about the new Labor Code?

If this updated Labor Code will pass, it will be a catastrophe for the garment workers. Now they are working under open-ended contracts, just the way it should be. If fixed-term contracts and 12-hour working days become legal, it’s going to be horrible, because it will mean increased overhours.

In the end, I have a more global question for you: how do we find the way out of this situation, considering undefeatable neoliberalism?

I think people are doing what they can already. There has been some progress in the recent years, though very small. It is a big achievement that there is a number of treaties that set the frames of responsibility for brands, states and trade unions. The struggle is going on for these new international documents to acquire the legal power to apply sanctions (preferably financial sanctions) for violations. But of course the resistance from the transnational corporations is enormous.

Some countries implement new methods to improve the situation. For example, Britain has new legislations that force Brithish brands to take responsibility for their whole production chain. A similar legislational attempt was made in France, and earlier in Brazil. There are attempts to change something on this level. But the holes on the state level should be fixed by the international law, for the things not regulated by governments to be regulated by international organisations.This is a global problem of the supply chains, that produce 60% of all the world’s goods, because it is so difficult to change the logics of the production chain.

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Kateryna Semchuk
Author at the Ukrainian edition of Political Critique (Політична критика), graduated from Paris Sorbonne 4 University, interested in political philosophy and ethics.