The storefront of Hugo Boss in Berlin. 360b / Shutterstock.com
On March 13, campaigners around Europe called out Hugo Boss on the company’s labor violations in their supplier factories in Turkey and Croatia. The protest coincides with the luxury brand’s ‘press and analysts’ conference in Metzingen, where the German company announces its financial results. And a shocking report on conditions in Hugo Boss factories is an clear challenge to the myth that paying more for clothes or choosing ‘Made in Europe’ guarantees ethical working conditions.
Approximately half of Hugo Boss clothes are made in factories in Europe. The coalition of worker’s rights organizations Clean Clothes Campaign published a report in 2014 called Stitched Up that showed a huge gap between the actual wages of garment workers in those factories and a living wage. Among many other bleak facts, it turns out most workers producing for Hugo Boss in Turkey earn below the poverty line.
The Clean Clothes Campaign is an alliance of organizations in 16 European countries. Members include trade unions and NGOs covering a broad spectrum of perspectives and interests, such as women’s rights, consumer advocacy and poverty reduction.
In their report Stitched Up workers reported union busting, intimidation, no observance of overtime regulation and sexual harassment. “I respect the company, I respect my work, why don’t they respect me? Hugo Boss so far does not act responsibly,” said one Turkish Hugo Boss worker in the report.
Some workers at the Turkish Hugo Boss supplier earn 326 euros monthly on average, including overtime and bonuses. The Turkish national poverty threshold is 401 euros and a minimum living wage is 890 euros. Moreover, the report found that workers who joined a union were mobbed and fired; workers reported frequent shouting and intimidation; it further showed that overtime regulations are not observed and that women are being sexually harassed.
“Women take these jobs because there are no other alternatives,” says Bettina Musiolek from the Clean Clothes Campaign. “Following the financial crisis in 2008 and the 1989-90 independence process, some of these economies are in tatters.”
Stitched up interviewed workers in 10 countries: Romania, Ukraine, Turkey, Bulgaria, Croatia, Slovakia, Georgia, Macedonia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Moldova, and in giving them a voice showed that the offenders are not just “bad apples.” These post-socialist European countries function as the cheap labor sewing backyard for brands like Adidas, Zara, H&M and Benetton in addition to Hugo Boss.
The fact that the workers are paid below the poverty line mean they need to rely on subsistence agriculture or a second job merely to survive. The legal minimum wage only covers between 14 percent (Bulgaria, Ukraine, Macedonia) and 36 percent (Croatia) of a basic living wage.
Workers are also constricted by the inability of unions to fight for their most basic rights. One Croatian unionist says in the Stitched Up report: “Unions do not have the opportunity to bargain for higher wages since they have to constantly fight illegal practices such as long-term unpaid overtime and unpaid social contributions or long-term unpaid wages.”
Musiolek admits she was surprised by the report herself. “I didn’t expect it to be this bad—particularly in Bulgaria, which was the most disastrous situation,” she says. “It’s the poorest country in the EU and the whole country is dominated by fear. It’s a humanitarian disaster and Hugo Boss is profiting from it.”
The research showed Zara and H&M has enjoyed rising profits even during the crisis, while working conditions in the production countries of the Central and Eastern Europe region have worsened, particularly since 2008 and 2009.
The Clean Clothes Campaign went to the target countries to carry out the extensive research, while the interviews were carried out by partner organizations. “They wouldn’t tell me the truth since I’m from an EU country [Germany]. The workers see us as representatives of the structure that oppresses them and that we usually try to impose our way of viewing the world. For the women to speak freely, they need to meet someone they can trust from their region,” Musiolek explains.
Three thousand Hugo Boss workers are based in Izmir, Turkey’s third largest city in the Anatolia region. The Turkish Union of Textile, Knitting and Clothing Industry Workers TEKSIF—an IndustriALL Global Union associate—has been helping Hugo Boss workers in Izmir to organize themselves for more than three years. The factory there is directly owned and run by Hugo Boss. It is the largest single clothing factory in Turkey and produces a substantial portion of the brand’s clothes. As such it could have the potential to set industry standards.
While trying to organize themselves the workers in Izmir have faced violations including targeting of union supporters and their family and close friends through threats, punishments and sackings by management.
At the Turkish supply factory Edirne Giyim, an HR manager, was sentenced to a one and a half year prison sentence while six department managers were given six month prison sentences each. It was following these severe labor rights violations that IndustriALL’s partner organization Clean Clothes Campaign started its research into Hugo Boss’ factories during 2013 and 2014. The report was subsequently published in June 2014.
High Court Rulings
Hugo Boss claims to uphold fair labor standards throughout its global operations. However following drawn-out court process, 20 illegal sackings of trade union supporters between 2011 and 2014 were confirmed by the Turkish High Court of Appeals. Despite this, management took the legal option of paying the dismissed workers a compensation instead.
Last month three more key union supporters were illegally dismissed. According to TEKSIF, Hugo Boss has at no stage been open to resolving the issue through dialogue.
Following several offers with no response from the Hugo Boss international management, IndustriALL Assistant General Secretary Kemal Özkan stated:
“Under the circumstances, it is now obvious and legally recorded that Hugo Boss has violated fundamental trade union rights enshrined in national legislation and international norms and standards. On top of this, the local management in Izmir and corporate leadership in Germany repeatedly refuse all requests from Teksif and IndustriALL to discuss and resolve the pending issues through dialogue on the basis of mutual respect and recognition.”
While the general belief is that European working conditions far surpasses those in Asian sweatshops, Musiolek points out two major similarities regarding the clothing production situation in Asia and in the CEE. Firstly, the weakness of labor rights and the fear of workers (although, she says, it’s worse in Asia), and the difference between the real wage earned in factories and a living wage.
Campaigners are calling on European fashion brands to pay a basic net wage of at least 60 percent of the national average wage. Buying would then be calculated on this basis and allow for wage hikes.
Musiolek concludes: “‘Made in Europe’ should mean that workers escape from poverty and do not have to be afraid to join a union. But on the contrary: ‘Made in Europe’ creates poverty and prevents people from exercising their political freedoms. Hugo Boss can and should step up to put an end to these gross violations. A real boss pays a living wage.”
This is not Hugo Boss’s first instance of maltreatment of workers. The German fashion house’s founder Hugo Boss joined the Nazi Party in 1931. By Q3 1932 Hugo Boss produced the all-black SS uniforms, the brown SA shirts and the Hitler Jugend shirts. There were 180 forced Polish and French war prisoners in total working in the Nazi uniform producing camp, and most of them were women, according to a book commissioned by the company itself.
U.S. lawyers initiated legal proceedings against Hugo Boss over the use of slave labor during the war on behalf of Holocaust survivors in 1999, which led to the company issuing an apology on their website in 2013. The official statement read that the brand—which was referred to as Hitler’s Tailor in the past—wished to “express its profound regret to those who suffered harm or hardship at the factory run by Hugo Ferdinand Boss under National Socialist rule.”
British comedian Russell Brand was famously thrown out of a GQ Men of the Year awards party in London in 2013 after having a jibe at Hugo Boss’s historical Nazi links. It remains to be seen what impact these latest revelations will have on the fashion brand; whether it will apologise and implement changes to its production. What’s clear is that the Clean Clothes report tarnishes the German fashion brand’s current practices.