17 Nov 16

Garment Factory Investigation Was Just The Start Of The Story

Laura Stefanut

Publishing an exposé of clothing factories in Eastern Europe led to intimidating phone calls, legal pressure and a tour of the factory that sued me.

Illustration by Branko Karapandza

Earlier this year I published an investigation into the garment industry. The story revealed that even inside the European Union some workers had to put up with meagre wages that were not paid on time and with arduous working conditions. The story focused on a number of factories in Romania that boasted of working with big international brands. Many workers feared they would lose their jobs just by talking to me but some were brave enough to speak out.

It turned out that publishing the investigation was not the end of the story. I began receiving anonymous, harassing phone calls. A man rang my doorbell and asked for me. He claimed to be from city hall but refused to identify himself.

At one factory, bosses told workers that they could lose their jobs because my story had prompted certain brands to stop using the plant. So workers took part in a protest against my article, reasoning that having a poorly paid job was better than having none at all. But several major brands denied the bosses' assertions so it appears the workers were misinformed.

Then, in late May, the same factory, Italian-owned Maglierie Cristian Impex, launched legal action against me. It is one of the biggest garment factories in Romania, with around 900 workers. The only major industrial employer in the vicinity of Calafat in southern Romania, the factory received European Union funding in 2012 to "enhance economical competitiveness".

In its lawsuit, the company alleged that I had damaged its reputation and caused a financial loss. It described itself as a quality producer for “famous brands such as: Lacoste, Zara, Escada, Massimo Dutti, Tommy Hilfiger, Strellson, Calvin Klein, Brax, etc.”

The company wanted me to pay some 45,000 euros in damages (the average salary in Romania is 420 euros per month after tax) and reveal the identity of my main source.

If you do investigative journalism, you expect to get sued at some point. But this was my first time -- and nothing prepared me for how it felt.

The morning after learning of the lawsuit, I woke up in a panic. What if the factory had sent me a comment to include in the story and I had missed it? I searched my emails but found nothing. Deep down, it was no surprise. I had tried many different ways to get the company to comment over a period of months -- all to no avail.

"Lawsuits are the best way of getting back at journalists, as they cost time, money and nerves," said Bogdan Gaurean, a Bucharest lawyer who offered to help with my case pro bono.

Even though I was confident all the facts were on my side, preparing my defence was a major task. I had to go through all the material I had gathered over the course of a year -- some 55 GB of notes, recordings and photos, equivalent in size to about 10 high-definition movies. I had to anonymise dozens of Facebook conversations with my sources, make transcripts of all my recordings related to the factory and find witnesses to participate in the trial.

BIG BRANDS' REACTION... TO THE STORY AND THE LAWSUIT

Inditex: Asked the factory to withdraw the lawsuit, saying it was "not the way to deal" with the right of free speech, which must always be defended.

HOLY Fashion Group (owner of Strellson and Joop! brands): Said it was conducting checks at the factory as a result of media reporting but its final decision would be taken independently of media coverage. Said it was committed to paying fair wages.

Brax: Wrote to the factory stating that it believed taking legal action in this case was wrong. Noted that its own inspections had confirmed substantial problems with late salary payments and overtime, as outlined in the story.

Escada: Said it was aware of the legal process but didn't "support it actively".

Marc O'Polo: Said it was investigating the allegations in the article. Distanced itself from the factory's action but said legal decisions by a supplier were outside its influence. Also noted that it did not want to ends its relationship with the factory as it was aware of the importance of jobs in the region.

According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, Lacoste owner Maus Frères did not reply to its letter while PVH, owner of brands such as Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, said it would conduct an audit at the factory but has not communicated its findings.

In June, the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC), an international organisation that promotes the human rights of garment workers, stepped in. It sent a letter to major companies known to have used the factory, calling on them to put pressure on its owners to drop the suit. At least two big clothing firms, such as Inditex, which owns the Zara and Massimo Dutti brands, did just that.

In late July, the lawsuit was withdrawn and a couple of weeks later I travelled to Calafat with a colleague, keen to find out how things were for the workers now.

We arrived around 8 pm at the home of a worker featured in my story, given the pseudonym Cristina. When Cristina got home from work, she had some good news. Workers used to work in 12-hour shifts, day and night – but not anymore, she said. Now they had a regular eight-hour day and could choose to stay longer for overtime pay of around one euro (4.5 lei) per hour.

Her kitchen had a brand new double-glazed window with pale green curtains, and a TV that hadn't been there before. But Cristina also told a familiar story. "We can move forward when I receive the money I've worked for," she said. One of the problems documented in my story was that workers did not even receive their low wages on time. Cristina said this was still a problem. Wages could be up to three months late, she said. The Labour Inspectorate fined the factory in February 2016 for late salary payments

After the protest about my article and an attempt by the factory to find the sources, things seemed to improve, Cristina said. Workers started getting their wages regularly, they could work fewer hours and new employees joined them.

"It's because of the inspectors," Cristina said. Each month, she said, inspectors from the brands could be seen filming inside the factory and interviewing workers. A young supervisor said one brand had been upset to discover workers were not paid on time and things would be different now, Cristina recalled.

By the time we visited Cristina, the inspections seemed to have stopped. And, according to three workers, so had the timely payment of wages.

In an email on November 10, 2016, the factory acknowledged it paid salaries late both this year and last but it said these delays were due to late payments from clients. It did not respond to a request to name these clients so this claim could not be verified.

Factory visit

The day after we visited Cristina, we went to the factory, hoping to find its bosses more open to talking than they had been before.

We met Gianluca Mantovani, one of the Italian owners. Dressed in jeans and a dark blue polo shirt, Mantovani was initially unwilling to face our questions. "I will not offer interviews and I forbid you to write about the factory," he declared.

Mantovani also told us salaries were a month late.

The factory manager, Marian Pasat, explained it was very hard for the firm to compete with Asian producers. For example, he said, the Labour Inspectorate fined the firm because workers were doing extra hours -- but if the workers didn't work those hours, the factory would have to close because the brands want large quantities produced quickly. He also said the factory paid workers up to twice the minimum wage. But he would not supply documents to prove this.

So, if they were so upset about my story, why did they drop their law suit?

"We had pressure from the brands, asking us to end the trial," Mantovani said several times.

Finally, the two men took us on a factory tour, although we were not permitted to take photographs or record audio or video.

We walked in and out of large rooms with workers sewing, checking and ironing garments to a soundtrack of ticking sewing machines and whirring washing machines. During the 15-minute tour, we could see nothing wrong. But it was impossible to draw any definitive conclusions.

Mantovani and Pasat invited three workers to talk to us. They lined up as we sat on a couch in the factory's reception area. A man who looked to be in his late thirties joined us first. He leaned forward and spoke in a low voice. A representative of electricians and drivers, he said the biggest problem for his colleagues was extra hours — they wanted more, so they could get paid more.

Next came a woman who represents workers making prototype patterns. She admitted people were upset because they were not receiving their salaries on time but "they understand the situation, as no one gets everything they want, even at home". She said things were good for her at the factory: she'd been working there for 14 years and received a salary of around 377 euros before tax (275 euros per month after tax).

The last interviewee was also an official workers' representative, for the department that checks clothes for flaws. She had worked in several other Romanian garment factories and said this one was the best.

"You just look at the others," she said. "They are way worse."

Courtroom coda

On October 5, 2016, I sat in a courtroom in the town of Craiova, where the factory had filed its lawsuit against me. I waited on a wooden bench with others whose cases were due to be heard that day. The judge sat on a throne-like chair below a Romanian flag fastened to the wall in a butterfly shape.

"Accused: Laura Stefanut," she said in a loud voice.

"Present."

"Do you agree with ending this trial?"

"Yes."

That was the formal end of the legal action. But is it finally the end of the story? The factory could try to sue me again over this article. And even if it does not, there will be other stories to tell about the reality behind clothes labels that seek to reassure consumers with the words "Made in the European Union".

Laura Stefanut is Editor of the Explanatory Journalism Section at Romanian news organisation DIGI24. She conducted her investigation into the garment industry as a 2015 fellow on the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence programme.

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