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Fashion victims: Bulgaria's textile workers on the poverty line

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Fashion victims: Bulgaria's textile workers on the poverty line
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With around hundred days to go before the European elections, Insiders, Euronews' hard hitting current affairs show, has produced a series of reports on some of the major issues concerning Europe and its citizens. **In this episode, reporter Hans von der Brelie travels to Bulgaria to find out about the difficult working conditions faced by textile workers. The country has the lowest minimum wage in the EU.**

Every morning, anything up to six days a week, textile workers in Bulgaria get up before the crack of dawn. They are just a few of the many thousands who make up the country's garment industry. Most, if not all, earn poverty wages. Global competition from low cost producing countries in Africa, Asia and Turkey mean that East European factories remain under pressure to drive down costs.

"It's 5:30 and we're in front of one of the biggest garment factories in Europe. In Bangladesh textile workers are on strike for better pay, here in Bulgaria they keep on working, despite being on extremely low wages."Hans von der Brelie, Euronews

Many international brands have outsourced their production to Bulgarian businesses like Pirin-Tex. The company produces a lot of items for Hugo Boss. The workers here are exceptionally fast, needing just five seconds to hem a trouser leg.

The pressure on employees remains intense. Sources from inside the factory told us that only 11 out of the site's 1800 workers are able to meet their production quota.

Mariyana Georgieva supervises the workload. The quota is fed into 1700 computer tablets - one for each work station.

"With this tablet system we control the whole production process. It's the best system we've ever had. With those tablets we have the possibility to control everything: Each single activity done by the employees, each ongoing operation, the time needed by the seamstress to execute a specific task as well as the method she uses... thanks to this system, we have full control," she says.

"Laws for human beings or robots?"

Pirin-Tex is located in the small southern Bulgarian town of Gotse Delchev, in the heart of the country's garment industry. We meet workers from the factory. Initially they are reluctant to speak out, but eventually agree to talk about their pay and working conditions. Kostadin, a union leader, slams the factories current operating practices.

"On average, workers are only able to finish about 60 percent of their required tasks every time. Depending on their seniority, the average net wage is between (650 and 700 leva) 320 and 350 euros," he says.

Elena, a textile worker at Pirin-Tex is equally critical: "Did Bulgarian politicians pass laws for human beings or was it for robots? We work non-stop: with this system, our employer has more or less been able to implement a forced system of work."

"My father and my mother live and work abroad. They left Bulgaria over twenty years ago. But still, even at my age now, they feel obliged to help me and they pay half of all my outgoings here in Bulgaria, so that I can just live a normal life," says Angel, another textile worker.

"We try to escape low wages,,,but nobody from abroad wants to come and work here"

Elka, another worker at the factory says: "I think our colleagues in western Europe would just laugh if they heard about what we earn. They would not believe it. It's true, it's better to laugh than cry... But: are we second class European citizens? Are we bad tailors or dressmakers? Do we eat less than our colleagues in western Europe?"

"There is a big paradox, in Bulgaria. We try to escape low wages, we run away from our bad living conditions and we head abroad, to work in the UK, in France or elsewhere... But nobody from abroad wants to come and work here.. and if a foreign entrepreneur wants to invest in Bulgaria, they are unable to find enough manpower," Kostadin adds.

Leaving Bulgaria for better pay

Around 40,000 people live in Gotse Delchev and its surrounding villages. According to the town's mayor, some 2500 people from the area are currently working abroad. Most are thought to be in Western Europe, employed in the farming, building and the health service sector. We connect with one of them via video chat. Galina recently left Gotse Delchev for the UK. Presently living in London, she left her family in Bulgaria to sow cheap sweaters instead of expensive suits.

"I felt like a machine, really - like a machine. You come home from work, you eat, you sleep three or four hours. I felt broken... as if huge rocks were bent on top of my back.

"The stress was huge in Bulgaria. I got (530 to 560 leva) 260 to 280 euros. Here in London I get (1600 pound sterling) 1800 euros per month. - In Bulgaria, my employer did not believe me when I was sick, although I had to have a drip-feed and buy medicine to keep going... I've been in the UK for 3 months and already feel better. Back in Bulgaria, the workload was way too much," she says.

"International brands do not want to pay accordingly to meet those necessary requirements."

As one of Pirin-Tex's main customers, Hugo Boss regularly carries out social audits at the textile factory in Gotse Delchev to evaluate operating procedures and working practices. The results are deemed to be good. Management also insist the company has an excellent reputation in Bulgaria, compared to other firms where conditions are much worse.

Viden is one of 25 engineers on site. He knows every single machine inside out, having helped set up the factory for Pirin-Tex's German owner, Bertram Rollmann.

"In the early '90s, the factory was still in Greece. The entrepreneur, Mr Rollmann, looked for an alternative site, because at that time, the living and production costs rose in Greece... while they remained low here in Bulgaria. Everyone knows, that there is this trend in the garment industry: production sites move from countries with high costs to countries with low costs," he says.

Pirin-Tex was built on the remains of a radio factory. When Bertram Rollmann invested, he was welcomed with open arms. The Bulgarian economy was in dire straits and garment production was seen as one way out of the hardship. In just a few years, the number of workers rose sharply to 3500. Rollmann's grandfather began a home-based tailoring business in Germany in 1922 and the family's first factory opened in 1965. Later, production was moved to Greece and then Bulgaria, where it still exists today.

"The profits for companies in the garment industry are too low to enable them to pay a lot to their employees. As a result, for three years now, people have left in large numbers, migrating elsewhere. This has left its mark. In the past three years, on average some 600 people have left our company every year, mostly heading to the United Kingdom, to Germany, some have gone to Sweden, and some even to Spain. Bulgarian producers like ours get only about five to seven percent of the retail price. That's not enough, actually. It's such a small part, that people working in production, be it in Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Macedonia or Albania, can not build a decent life. On the one hand, international brands insist that international, let's say European standards should be respected and implemented, in regard to social (work) conditions. On the other hand, those brands do not want to pay accordingly to meet those necessary requirements," insists Rollmann.

Finding other ways to make ends meet

Since 1990, some 1.5 million people have left Bulgaria.The country's current population stands at around seven million. Despite the massive exodus, large numbers of Bulgarians continue to leave in a bid to find better paid work.

We arrange to meet the local union leader Kostadin and his wife, Zorka. She left Pirin-Tex, citing the stressful working conditions. As an independent seamstress she does not earn much more than she did before - but is thankful she can now work at her own pace.

"This new control system at Pirin-Tex is a type of piecemeal work system which is not good for anyone. We cannot earn more. This quota system urges us to work more and quicker. We don't have (enough) time to do what we need to do every hour. Therefore the people become depressed, lose motivation and just think about leaving the factory," Kostadin says.

"In my opinion, this piecemeal system was just put in place to control the workers. You cannot really boost productivity with this system. All this is not about controlling the work process - but about keeping an eye on the employees. All this is put in place to pay less to the employees. As a result, the productivity drops," Zorka adds.

Many locals say the low pay at the factory means they are forced to sell fruit and vegetables to make extra money. Then there are those who leave for the UK, France, Germany or elsewhere.

"It's wintertime and you need a warm house. For that I need (around 1200 Leva) about 600 euros - for the whole winter season. That's two months salary I need to save, just for heating. After that, not much money is left to buy food. You also have to pay for electricity, that's another (100 Leva) 50 euros... If you want to offer an education to your children, if you want to save something for emergencies, if you want to go on holiday occasionally... well, it's just impossible with the textile factory's salary as your sole income. - With those fruit trees I hope to get the money together to pay for my children's education. The fruit trees are my insurance, somehow," says Kostadin.

"None of us found what we were looking for"

Bulgaria's minimum wage is the lowest in the EU. Despite a rise of 10 percent in January, the current basic salary is only 286 euros per month. That is lower than the 440 euros in neighbouring Romania and way below the minimum wage in France, which currently stands at 1500 euros.

Ivan recently got a job as a caretaker at the town's gymnasium. At 20-years-old, it is his first full-time job. Up until now, he was able to eke out a living by repairing computers for friends.

"It's not easy to find well paid work in Bulgaria. I graduated from a professional school together with 25 other class mates who specialised in IT. But none of us found what we were looking for, nobody got a well paid IT job... So finally, I accepted this caretaker job - at least it is interesting," he says.

Ivan got the job through an EU programme which seeks to help young people without work find employment - the job, however, only pays the minimum wage.

"Bulgaria is the poorest country in the EU. You get (two leva) one euro per hour, which means (20 leva) ten euros per day. In Germany or France, (20 leva) ten euros is what you get for each hour. What we get for one day's labour, in western Europe you earn in a single hour... - In Bulgaria, it's just impossible to move out of the family home, when you have finished school. How is it possible to find a place of your own when your parents also earn just the minimum wage?" Ivan asks.

After work, Ivan shows me around Gotse Delchev. In addition to liking Bulgarian pop music, the singer Shakira and heavy metal group Metallica, his dream is to travel. He also loves to play the lottery. Like many Bulgarians, the numbers game offers the chance, however slim, to escape the drudgery of everyday life.

"If I could win right (the lottery) now, I would definitely buy a new car and I would like to travel to explore ancient sites and treasures in the Arab world," he says.

European Union support

Since Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, the local authority of Gotse Delchev has received around 50 million euros. Most of that went towards upgrading infrastructure. The town's socialist mayor, however, insists more support is needed for small and medium sized businesses in the area.

"There is a problem for those countries which recently joined the European Union. The problem is low incomes and the working poor. A great deal needs to be done to stimulate and to increase wages in these regions and countries. We need a revenue revolution. This kind of change would slow down internal migration in Europe. If we manage to trigger this revenue revolution people would stay in Bulgaria and we could catch up with living standards in western Europe," Vladimir Moskov says.

Low wages mean low pensions

Many retired Bulgarians also live in poverty. Now 80, Atlaza Shtereva started working when she was just 15-years-old. In her first job, she planted trees. After she got married, she moved with her husband to the Soviet Union to work as a cook. She eventually returned to Bulgaria and found a job making zips in a garment factory. She stayed there until retirement.

When food shopping, Atlaza just buys the basics and always looks for special offers. Atlaza also makes ends meet by helping the local church with its accounts. She has a nephew in Spain and a niece in France, while her two children still live in Bulgaria.

"When I get my pension, (300 leva) around 150 euros, I have to pay around (100 leva) 50 euros for all the bills: electricity, medicine. That means I just have (200 leva) 100 euros until the end of the month, for daily expenses. When looking in shop windows I see a lot of goods I cannot afford... Fortunately, my children help me out. Without this support I would not be able to survive. - I am poor as a church mouse: thanks to my children I have some heating so I will not fall sick. They buy the wood for heating.

"With my small pension I cannot afford to buy sausages and meat... Recently I met two friends. They and their husbands are still working and are earning money. They bought meat and ham. With my pension, I can never afford to buy ham," Atlaza insists.

Moving production abroad?

Back at the factory we ask about the prospects of raising wages and more broadly about the future for the eastern European textile industry, given fierce global competition.

On the whole, for owner Bertram Rollman, the outlook is gloomy. He claims textile producers in Bulgaria and Romania harbour ambitions to move production abroad. For now, he says he doesn't have such plans.

"We will stay here, on this site... You do not give up such a site with 1800 staff just like that. The know-how we have built up here is precious to us. But it could happen, of course, that one day we will be forced to open a second site in another country, that could be somewhere in Africa or in Central Asia... in order to get an alternative, to get a second leg in order to keep our business going in the medium and long-term," he says.

Rollmann says he is exploring the possibility of opening a second site in either Senegal or Usbekistan.

A minimum hourly rate for all the EU?

With this year's European Parliament elections in mind, local union members in Gotse Delchev have their own ideas on what needs to be done to trigger change for the better.

"In order to get real change, the system needs to change: the piecemeal work needs to stop. Pay should only be based on the number of working hours. And we need a sectoral agreement for our particular sector. A colleague of mine, working in France, told me that they get paid nine and a half euros per hour. That's huge, compared to us... We just earn peanuts," says textile worker Mariya.

Textile worker Angel insists the EU must introduce a standard hourly minimum rate across the entire bloc. He says: "What can the European Union do for us? Well, they should fix a minimum rate for each working hour. This hourly minimum sum should be implemented across the whole of the EU."

"We don't want double standards, we don't want a two speed Europe. We want to be fully part of Europe and we want the EU to guarantee a European minimum wage. Prices are also the same in Europe," adds Elena, a textile worker.

In conclusion, another textile worker, Karamfila calls for better paid jobs in Bulgaria more generally, so those who have left the country will return.

"What has to change? I wish all the young people who left Bulgaria could come back home. I have one child, 21, living in Germany for two years now. My dream is that my child will find a well-paid job in Bulgaria in order to make a decent living - rather than abroad. That's what I want."