CALAFAT, Romania (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Outside a clothing factory in Calafat in southern Romanian early one morning, hundreds of workers crowd around makeshift stalls to stock up on snacks and drinks for their shift.
The Italian-owned knitwear factory, Maglierie Cristian Impex, is the largest employer in the area and one of the largest clothing factories in Romania, with about 1,000 staff.
It has produced clothes since 1997 for big names such as Kenzo, Escada, Marc O’Polo, Faconnable and Inditex, the Spanish-based giant whose brands include Zara and Massimo Dutti.
But some workers mutter they have not been paid while others say they received wages only once every two or three months last year.
“Work, work, work — but no pay,” complains one worker, 34-year-old Cristina, who did not want her real name disclosed.
Activists have railed against the plight of garment workers in recent years but their focus has often been on Asia.
But even inside the European Union - in Romania and Bulgaria particularly - workers can endure poverty-level wages, long hours and arduous conditions to make clothes for major brands.
Campaigners are demanding that clothing brands take full responsibility for their production chains, with decent pay and conditions for all the workers involved.
Some 345,000 people work in more than 10,000 factories in the clothing, textile and leather industries in Romania and Bulgaria, according to government statistics. The sector is among the top exporters in both countries.
Factory owners say they face intense pressure from brands to keep costs low.
Workers, who are overwhelmingly women, are often hired on the legal minimum wage of less than 200 euros ($220) a month net and may earn even less, say workers and campaigners such as the Fair Wear Foundation and Clean Clothes Campaign.
From late January to mid-July last year, Cristina says she was paid twice, receiving a total of around 1500 lei (340 euros) from the factory that has received European Union funding to “enhance economical competitiveness”.
“Women go and start crying in front of the chief, saying ‘please give me my money, because I can’t feed my children’,” says Cristina, the only person in her family with a full-time job.
In April 2014, more than 300 employees at the Maglierie Cristian factory staged a wildcat strike over late wages.
Cristi Deseanu, 29, a mechanic at the plant, says people were eventually paid but he and other vocal protesters were fired and he lost his job that paid 250 euros a month.
Deseanu provided documents to back up his claim that he was dismissed because he took part in the strike. But, in a telephone conversation, a senior company official said Deseanu quit his job.
“My salary there didn’t offer me the chance to start a family of my own,” said Deseanu.
The Calafat factory is majority-owned by Enzo Mantovani, the founder of a luxury cashmere brand, and his sons.
The Romanian business posted a turnover of more than 8.3 million euros in 2014, according to the Romanian Ministry of Finance. On its website, it boasts of “a good reputation at home and abroad” and a philosophy of “absolute customer satisfaction”.
Despite numerous attempts by phone, email and visiting the factory to obtain comment from the company, including responses to the specific allegations in this story, the firm has offered nothing beyond a few words on Deseanu’s departure.
Inditex said last September that its social audits had found the plant complied with its Code of Conduct. In January this year, however, Inditex said the factory was now “under a correction plan”. It did not specify details of the plan.
“In the following weeks, the audit teams will carry out another social audit of this supplier. The supplier will then receive either an authorization to continue supplying Inditex or it will be definitely blocked,” the company said in a statement.
The other brands mentioned in connection with the factory did not respond to email or telephone requests for comment or did not answer the questions they were asked.
Catalin Mohora, a local labor inspector, said it can be legal for an employer to pay less than the minimum wage if, for example, demand for its products was low. An employer could cut working hours and decrease pay accordingly.
If salaries are late, inspectors first ask the employer to pay up and can only impose fines if the firm does not comply.
Mohora says Maglierie Cristian is one of the better local employers. Some companies, he said, try to avoid paying wages and taxes by modifying contracts after they have been signed and get employees to work overtime without extra pay.
Calafat’s deputy mayor, Dorel Mituletu, said the town of around 17,000 people on the banks of the Danube struggles to attract investors and the Maglierie Cristian factory is its “breath of life”.
“No one can afford to get on the wrong side of someone who, one way or another, provides jobs to 1,000 people,” he said.
Reports from workers from other factories can be worse.
Romania’s Labor Inspectorate said inspections between 2013 and 2015 found the Zendoo Style factory in Calarasi, about 100 km (60 miles) east of the capital Bucharest, did not respect the law on salary payments, working hours, overtime and rest time for workers.
The company, which employed about 80 people, was fined for failing to rectify these issues, the inspectorate said.
Asked via telephone about this, the factory’s managing director, Vasilica Sterschi, said she would comment via email on the Labor Inspectorate’s statement but has not done so.
Zendoo Style was declared bankrupt in September 2015.
A report on 10 eastern Europe countries and Turkey in 2014 by the Clean Clothes Campaign, a group that lobbies to improve conditions for workers in the sector, found poverty-level wages, dangerous working conditions and forced overtime were “endemic throughout the garment industry”.
It noted that the minimum wages in some of the countries it surveyed were lower than in China and Indonesia.
“Customers have this preconception — ‘Made in Europe, it must be fair’,” says Corina Ajder, a researcher for the organization. “But that’s not true.”
Factory owners in Romania and Bulgaria say there is little they can do to increase wages under cost pressures from brands.
“They just want to put the prices down, down, down and that’s it,” says Radina Bankova, president of the Bulgarian Association of Apparel and Textile Producers and Exporters.
Some employers, however, have managed to give their workers a better deal, in collaboration with fashion brands.
In 2007, workers went on strike at the Pirin-Tex factory in Gotse Delchev, the biggest clothing factory in Bulgaria, with more than 2,000 workers that is located near the Greek border. They demanded an extra 100 euros a month in wages.
Bertram Rollmann, the factory’s German owner, was shocked as he felt he had worked hard to maintain good relations with his workforce since opening the factory in 1993.
Wages went up every year and the business has a creche and a training department for staff.
When the strike began, Rollmann went to clients and asked for better prices. As a result, he said, he lost his biggest customer who accounted for 25 percent of production.
Other brands, however, agreed to pay more. The strike ended after 17 days when Rollmann was able to offer an increase of around 60 euros a month. In 2015, the average salary in his factory was around 415 euros a month, he said - while the minimum salary in the country was around 180 euros.
Rollmann believes conditions and wages are slowly improving as brands respond to consumers concerned about ethical issues.
“They are reacting now,” Rollmann said. “The public mind-set is changing.”
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