|How far ist Bulgaria? European Garment Industry Produces Nearby
translation: Gabriela Meier, Alain Kessi
In the eyes of many, Bulgaria lies as far as the Ural and is just as suspicious. Not so for the German garment industry or retailers like C&A or sporting goods producers like Puma, Adidas or Reebok. On the contrary, for them, Bulgaria is much closer than Vietnam, China or Sri Lanka, ideal for covering the (Western) European market. They are using this chance extensively. Thanks to a rapidly devaluated Bulgarian currency, labor is even available at low cost - from 20 German Pfennig an hour onwards in small sewingshops in the mountainous regions near the border to Greece and Turkey.
The Bulgarian economy has been in a state of sluggish "transformation" since the beginning of the 90ies: its markets are crumbling, the domestic demand has almost disappeared. Who is interested nowadays in the former "flagships" of Bulgarian industry, such as fork-lift trucks, car batteries, pharmaceuticals or cigarettes, when Caterpillar, Bosch, Merck and Philip Morris are conquering the markets?
Factories are being privatized at give-away prices, if they are not already closed down. Both the government and the private sector are accumulating short-term debts- too many tailors for such a small economy. The shadow economy is flourishing, including thegarment production. Greek and Turkish garment manufacturers have seamstresses sewbehind the borders at cheaper rates, who workingunprotected employment conditions. Then the producerstransport the completed pieces to their own countries often illegally, and export the goods to Western Europe themselves.
The result of this economic situation especially in 1996 and 1997 was a hyperinflation, devaluation of the currency and political turbulence which culminated in an increased intervention of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank in the middle of 1997. One of the standard recipes the IMF keeps repeating like a magical formula: export oriented economy. But what should be exported? In this context the cheap labor comes in handy: predominantly women sew, iron, wrap - and the completed garment is exported. Templatesand raw materials were provided from outside. In the economic jargon this is called outward processing, or commission processing.
For the population, this hovers over their headslike the sword over Damocles'. What economic agony and cheap leva do not achieve, is fulfilled by the monopoly structures of the economy, which stem from state socialist times and are now being extended for the benefit of foreign investors with the ambition of economy and government to become a candidate for accession to the European Union.
As seamstresses, Bulgarian women stand a rather good chance of continuing to work for Western Europe and the USA, but they have to accept the lowest monthly salary on the market in Bulgaria, about 100 German Mark, with which they can barely pay the electricity and heating bill, neitherfood norclothing yet. For comparison: At the end of 1997, a family of four needed more than 800 German Marks to cover their basic needs and a few extras such as school material. The rise of salaries did not nearly compensate for the inflation (1997: 580%). 80% of employees in the garment industry are women. Their job protects them neither from poverty nor from gender-specific discrimination.
Add to this the diverse methods of exploitation: Employment limited to a period of up to six months, "coincidentally" often identical with the probationary period; overtime until the target is fulfilled, which remains unpaid; layoffs of unionists; rejection of and endless negotiations on collective bargaining agreements or simply discarding existing agreements; outsourcing to small sewingshops - sweat shops. What shocked me most during my recent visit was how the human dignity of the seamstresses was violated, in a way, which by that time, I knew "only" from Central America and Asia: workers were locked in so that they could not take a breakor leave before the target was fulfilled, they had to to take all their clothes offto prove they have not stolen anything.
This lies outside ofthe view of German quality controllers who regularly check ontheir business on the spot. For them, Bulgaria is rather close, but the Bulgarian workers are nonetheless far away.
|About the author:
Bettina Musiolek is a social economist and member of the Arbeitsgruppe
Frauen und Wirtschaft des NRO-Frauenforums (working group on women and
economy of the NGO women's forum) - one of the organizations taking part
in the Clean Clothes Campaign. She recently did research on the garment
industry in Bulgaria.
Bettina Musiolek (Hgin), Ich bin schick und du musst schuften.
Frauenarbeit für den globalen Modemarkt (Frankfurt a. M. 1997).
(engl. I look sharp and you have to sweat. Women's work for the
global fashion market)
Gabriela Meier, Translations
31 New Road, Newlyn/Penzance, Cornwall TR18 5PZ, UK
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