The expensive ‘Italian’ shoes made for a pittance in east European sweatshops

The expensive ‘Italian’ shoes made for a pittance in east European sweatshops

A troubling study claims that workers producing UK high street brands are enduring low pay and poor conditions

Shoes on display in a UK high street. Under European rules, shoes can be assembled and “made” in different countries
Shoes on display in a UK high street. Under European rules, shoes can be assembled and “made” in different countries. Photograph: Angel Navarrete/Bloomberg

Campaigners claim millions of shoppers are being led to believe the expensive shoes they buy in high-street stores are made in Germany and Italy – when many are actually made by workers on poverty wages in eastern European sweatshops.

The scandal is exposed in a damning investigation into the European shoe industry, which details illegal wages and shocking working conditions in factories turning out footwear for the UK market.

The investigation claims some big brands appear to be using a legal loophole, stamping their products with “Made in Italy” or “Made in Germany” to suggest they are high quality, when they have actually been made by poverty-stricken eastern European workers. The investigation found that footwear workers in Albania were earning as little as 49p an hour including overtime – which is an illegal rate even in such a poor country.

Workers in Macedonia, where the hourly wage was as low as 64p, described being taken to hospital in wheelbarrows after fainting in freezing factories where they had to work with strong chemicals. “If the employer needs to complete, let’s say, an order of 9,000 pairs of shoes, he will put 90 pairs on the belt and even if you want to die, you have to finish it,” a worker told researchers compiling the report, entitled Labour on a Shoestring.

It alleges that one Macedonian factory, which produced Geox shoes, was paying illegally low wages of €131 (£113) a month, with overtime. The legal minimum is €145 before overtime.

Geox shoes are available in the UK through John Lewis and House of Fraser, among other retailers. Geox did not respond to requests for comment.

Manufacturers are able to take advantage of an obscure European loophole known as the outward processing trade (OPT) scheme. Under the rules, companies cut parts for the shoes in one country before exporting them to a low-wage economy where they are assembled and sewn. They are then imported back to the original country, duty free. The finished shoes can then be labelled as being made in the original country.

The report, compiled by researchers from several European rights groups, is based on interviews with 179 workers in 12 factories. It condemns OPT as “a dead-end scheme for workers, national economies and businesses” and describes it as “an economic and social road to ruin”.

Researchers found that the factories produced shoes for brands including Zara, Lowa, Deichmann, Ara, Geox, Bata and Leder & Schuh AG and subsidiaries of CCC Shoes & Bags in Poland and Rieker and Gabor in Slovakia.

Bata did not address the allegations directly but welcomed the report, which it said had provided “interesting insights in the generally under-reported working conditions in eastern Europe”. The company said it expected its suppliers to comply with local laws.

The report looked at production in six low-wage European countries: Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Poland, Romania and Slovakia. One in three of the Albanian workers questioned were paid less than the legal minimum wage of £121 a month, even with overtime and bonuses. The report indicated that women were generally worse off. Albanian workers reported having to work on up to 60 pairs of shoes a day.

Female workers in Romania said their husbands had to find low-paid seasonal work in the west to be able to afford wood to burn for heating during the winter. One man said: “Both my wife and I work in this factory. We are glad we could find work, but cannot imagine raising children on two factory wages. Our parents and relatives cannot support us, so we depend on this miserable wage. We wanted to move from the village to the city for a better life, but cannot afford to pay city rent from our salaries.”……….

Anna McMullen, from Labour Behind the Label, a UK-based workers’ rights group involved in the report, said consumers needed to be told the truth about where their shoes come from. “The clever ruse of shipping shoe parts out to low-wage countries to the east of Europe for assembly and glueing, before returning shoes for labelling as ‘made in Europe’, is duping consumers into thinking their products are made with dignity,” she said.

“In fact, we now know that workers in Albania and Macedonia are being paid wages so low that they cannot feed their families – so much so that the gap between the minimum and living wage is greater than in China. These out-sourcing methods used by some brands are turning mass profits on the back of worker poverty.”

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