News that workers have been found producing clothes in sweatshop-like conditions in São Paulo, Brazil are sadly hardly surprising. The story reads like many others: (fill in the blanks) High-street brand _______ has been accused of using (delete as appropriate) child labour/dangerous and unhealthy working conditions/less than minimum pay/long hours. Depressingly we know how it goes. And usually it is all of the above. What we don’t know is who is held accountable? After the story broke yesterday, first in Repórter Brasil and then later in The Guardian, I realized how many strands there were to the issues. Since clothes are made in so many different places there are unique situations attached to each one.
So the story goes that the Brazilian ministry of labour is currently investigating Zara’s parent company Inditex, after workers were found in a factory working in poor conditions. The said factory has work sub-contracted by a company called AHA, which is responsible for 90% of Zara’s production in Brazil. Already, my head is spinning with who exactly is accountable for what and the number of players involved. And so the blame passing goes on and on. A lack of transparency and accountability is an obvious part of the problem but not the whole story.
- There is the strength of the Brazilian Real to consider, making Brazil an attractive place for migrant workers, who can send more money home even when working for less than the minimum wage.
- There is the economic downturn in Europe and the U.S, but particularly in Spain, where Zara’s HQ is based. This effects migrant labour and increases pressure on other branches of Zara across the world to perform well – especially in Brazil where the economy is booming.
- There is the cache and popularity of brand Zara in Brazil, where it is popular with young and fashion aware who want a slice of the fast-fashion model so popular in Europe and the U.S. but less popular here.
- There is the high taxes on imports, making production in Brazil a must for international firms like Zara who wish to capitalize on the booming economy and growing middle classes.
- There is the Brazilian government crack on slave labour as the spotlight on the country grows ever brighter.
The connections between issues are endless.
With Zara on my mind, I looked in my wardrobe and pulled out a few Zara items I own. They were all made in different places. Indeed, after I started looking I just couldn’t stop. My wardrobe, it seems, is pretty well travelled. In fact, had I used the country of origin to plan a trip it would go something like this:
First stop Romania, popular for lower labour costs in comparison to the EU and ideal strategic location so it is an important supplier to the EU with 80% of apparel production is for the export market. So plenty of factors here to complicate the situation. Next up is Morocco, then Turkey – both with particularly interesting influences, opportunities and problems. Then there is also Portugal and Spain to consider. Quite a tour. Oh, and lurking at the back of the wardrobe was Indonesia, where there are again many factors both local and global to take into account. Then of course, there is Brazil, Argentina and so on.
The only certainty is every supply chain is endlessly linked to a whole load of other things that are at once the same but but different.