Zara Praised For COVID-19 Response But Factory Workers Were Sacked For Asking For Face Masks

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Opening of the first Zara store in Australia, in Sydney, in 2011.

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NEW DELHI – A woman immaculately dressed for quarantine reads on a shaggy sofa in her black blouse and non-slip jeans. Another, dressed in a peach dress on the floor, dances in the kitchen with cheerful abandon. A third distance socially on a boat, her white poplin blouse contrasts with the lush green.

Meanwhile, in crowded factories located in chaotic and crime-ridden industrial centers, the workers who make these clothes are abandoned by Zara, the global retail brand that makes quarantine look so fascinating.

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When more than one third of the planet sank coronavirusrelated locks, fashion has changed. The trot in the world, elegant woman of Zara's campaigns moved to closed environments – or at least, that's where you see her in the videos produced with blanket that the global fashion brand sends to Twitter. It is possible that no one Versace cover soon, but consumers are buying clothes online to reflect their new lives: clothes to wear at work Call zoomathleisure for exercising at home, sweats and pajamas for relaxing and clothes that just make us feel good. The world may be full of uncertainties, but being able to choose the fit, color and fabric of the shirt that we combine with the comfortable pajamas still offers the possibility of feeling in control.

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The cost of this retail therapy, the desire for comfort and normality under lockdown, is being borne by workers thousands of miles away, faces you've never seen in a summer fashion campaign, even when the videos include color token models. These workers are unable to work from home and, in some cases, are being forced to work in factories close to each other, without concern for protecting them from the coronavirus. While brands like Zara, which has stores in 96 countries, speed up work in logistics centers, workers who assemble clothes, swimwear, accessories and shoes are being sacrificed to meet demand.

Problems with fast fashion precede the emergence of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, but its rapid spread deepened the incredible inequality between workers working at one end of the supply chain and wealthy individuals like Spanish billionaire Zman Amancio Ortega, the sixth richest in the world. man world, who are renaming themselves as benevolent saviors.

At the height of the pandemic in Spain this year, Zara’s parent company, Inditex, closed more than 3,000 stores. Ortega spun his fashion empire to make hospital gowns and masksand according to Forbes, flew in medical supplies worth millions of China. Ortega also made sure that Spanish Zara employees received all wages during the crisis – which earned him a lot of press and support in Spain. On March 28, ambulance teams gathered in front of your home to wish you a happy birthday. But Ortega's generosity and concern for Zara's workers stopped at Spain's borders.

The ambulances of A Coruña delineate the house of Amancio Ortega to express the thanks of all the society and to congratulate him by his accomplice. Cheers Amancio, Marca España 🇪🇦

Although Inditex does not publicly disclose the list of factories from which the clothes are purchased, BuzzFeed News spoke to employees at two factories that are part of Zara's supply chain in Myanmar, where workers take 11-hour, six-day shifts. between $ 3.50 and $ 4.74 per day.

While people sang “Congratulations to you” to Ortega from his balconies in Spain, more than 500 workers from the two factories were laid off when they asked to be provided with durable masks and to introduce social distance to protect them from the coronavirus. One of the factories, Myan Mode, fired all members of a workers' union, along with a woman who complained of being sexually harassed at the factory last year.

Obtained by BuzzFeed News

Inside a Zara factory in Yangon, Myanmar.

Inditex told BuzzFeed News that it was working with suppliers to ensure that they were following official guidelines to protect workers during the pandemic. A spokesman said the dispute in Myan Mode had been at least partially resolved, with the reinstatement of 29 dismissed workers.

The anxiety of being fired or having her salary cut due to the coronavirus crisis led to think of pieces, graphiteand "eat the richMemes. Britney Spears could be a communist now, and TikTok teenagers are calling Karl Marx "Dad." Jeff Bezos – mercilessly for losing a tiny portion of his money – in fact, it has now added $ 25 billion, more than Honduras' GDP, to its total wealth since the coronavirus crisis began. Billionaires in the U.S. have seen their net worth increase by tens of millions of dollars in the past three months.

Many want the ultra-rich to do more, which may be why Rihanna, who donated millions of dollars to coronavirus relief efforts, was described as a “COVID-19 enemy from one woman. “But the pandemic and its economic repercussions have exposed the hypocrisy of the super-rich who do enough to ensure a good press, while treating workers who work for their brands as disposables.

“Could we all die and why? Make brands already rich super rich, ”said a worker on the phone from the capital of Myanmar, Yangon, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The working class is being sacrificed so that they can wear good clothes."

Sai Aung Main / Getty Images

A man wearing a face mask walks on an empty road amid restrictions to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus in Yangon on April 10.

The coronavirus has so far it did not spread extensively in Myanmar, despite the country sharing a nearly 1,400-mile border with China and the fact that about 10,000 migrant workers were crossing the border daily by the end of January. On May 7, the country officially registered only 176 cases and six deaths.

The country's first positive coronavirus case was registered on March 23 – a Myanmar citizen who lives in the United States and recently returned for a wedding. Until then, the government of Myanmar was still patting the back because "there were no cases of coronavirus in the country" – something the health minister said people owed their diet and lifestyle. There was still no mention of social distance. But, as in many parts of Southeast Asia, it is difficult to give a true picture, because there are not enough tests – as of May 1, the government will administer 8,300 tests. Experts fear that if the number of coronavirus cases increased dramatically, the country's public health system would collapse. The World Bank estimated that Myanmar has only 249 fans for a population of almost 55 million.

Almost nothing has changed in working practices at Myan Mode, the Zara factory, which is in the heart of the industrial district of Hlaing Tharyar, in the capital of Myanmar, Yangon. Since the factory, whose owners are based in South Korea, opened in 2016, half of all orders have been from Zara.

Hlaing Tharyar is a crowded center of clothing factories and light manufacturers, home to gang violence, police violence and union clashes. The majority of Myan Mode workers are young women from rural villages – the Myanmar clothing workforce is over 90% women. At the insistence of the workers' union, factory heads had added a basin for workers to wash their hands, while temperature checks took place when workers entered the factory. Employees were given cloth masks in February, but they were not durable, and the factory did not supply other masks.

Then, suddenly, in the last week of March, everything changed. “The husbands of two women who worked at the factory returned from Thailand and they were showing symptoms of COVID-19, ”Ohmar Myint, 34, a sewing machine operator at Myan Mode, told BuzzFeed News. "The women and their husbands lived in the dorm, so everyone found out."

On March 28, the union decided to speak to the factory owners again. "We wanted masks to become mandatory, the end of mandatory overtime during the crisis, and we wanted to send home the two women whose husbands had symptoms similar to COVID," said a veteran union leader named Mau Maung, who was part of negotiating committee said. "It was noon on Saturday, so management told us it would be back with a decision soon." A few hours later, an employee arrived at the room where the workers were meeting and read a list of 571 names. Everyone on the list, including Myint, Maung and 520 union members, were fired on the spot, representing about half of Myan Mode's workforce.

"We received no warning," said Maung.

Nearly half a million people in Myanmar work in clothing factories, living on cheeks in dormitories that factories rent them for half their salaries. The country's minimum wage is one of the lowest in Asia, and after a wave of strikes last year, approximately 50,000 clothing workers have joined or formed unions. These unions are a lifeline for people who are treated by the big brands as cheap and convenient labor, but in the end disposable. The Myan Mode union managed to negotiate small victories for workers, such as permission to be up to 15 minutes late for work and more reasonable hours of work than other factories required – 44 hours a week, with up to 14 overtime hours.

Research the history of Zara and you will find the origin story of its owner, Ortega, told in breathless detail. It always starts with poverty, the seed of his philanthropic nature was planted when, as a 12-year-old boy, he saw his mother receiving food on credit at a local store in La Coruña.

This kind of poverty is familiar to Myint, who was one of 571 employees laid off in Myan Mode.

When she spoke to BuzzFeed News by phone from Yangon, she looked defiant and sad: the factory had fired all union members and a woman complained that a senior colleague at the factory had made sexual advances towards her.

Myint said that sexual harassment was rampant in the garment factories in Myanmar, and she admired the way the union was on the plaintiff's side, her solidarity leading to the resignation of the Myan Mode man. That's why she joined the union. BuzzFeed News was unable to contact the plaintiff, who union members say left Yangon and returned to her home village.

"Workers cannot oppress workers, but that is what happens in factories," said Myint. “Factory owners have absolute power – we cannot respond to them, no matter how much they exploit us, or demand better wages, or even ask for leave. If we take a day off, we will lose money. On the days when we finish our work earlier, we cannot leave the factory, we simply receive another task, then another and another … the work never stops. "

Being in the union gave Myint more bargaining power, she was part of a collective of more than 500 people, mostly women. But at the end of each day, Myint said, she still felt like it was a machine whose batteries had run out. His whole body ached from bending the zippers and lining he sewed on skirts, jackets, shirts and sweatshirts for Zara and its rival Spanish brand, Mango. When the shift ended, there were still household chores to be done, groceries to take home, food to cook for his family. She had five hours to herself all day, and those were for sleeping.

Myint said he learned about the new coronavirus in January, while browsing Facebook.

"[I was reading about] how contagious and scary for me, because we work so close to each other all day, if one of us got sick, everyone would get sick, ”she said.

In February, Myint and the other union members had heard that China's supply of raw materials, such as zippers, fabric, buttons, rivets and velcro, had stopped reaching Myan mode. That's when Myint and the union decided to talk to their employers at the factory.

"We told them: & # 39; If you plan to close the factory or lay off workers because of the coronavirus, let the union know first so we can help people look for another job & # 39;", she said. "The owners agreed, but said there were still no plans to close the plant." Myan Mode confirmed the details of this conversation.

Iago Lopez / AP

Amancio Ortega Gaona, founding shareholder of the Inditex fashion group, in July 2013.

The reputation that Ortega, Billionaire founder of Inditex, enjoys as a hero of a small town in Spain and is reinforced by stories about his legendary humility. Stories like how his first fashion distribution network started in 1963, in the port city of La Coruña, to help women make money while their husbands went out to fish. At Inditex's headquarters in Arteixo, in northwest Spain, he is sitting at a table in a corner of Zara Woman's work area. Ortega, now 84, is so reclusive that until 1999 no photo of him had been published. Until the blockades in Spain forced everyone to stay indoors, Ortega still drank his coffee at his favorite local cafe.

But Ortega's real gift is speed. Inditex has several other brands, including Pull & Bear, Massimo Dutti, Bershka, Oysho, Stradivarius, Zara Home and Uterqüe. But the company's crown jewel is undoubtedly Zara. Last month, Spanish media noted with satisfaction that even Pablo Iglesias, Spain's second deputy prime minister and one of more vocal critics, was seen wearing a black Zara Man jacket.

Over the years, as Zara has evolved both its name – from Zorba to Zara – and its fashion style, the brand has built its reputation by identifying trends and delivering these trends to customers at high speed: in terms of fashion, weeks, instead of months.

Ortega's quick thinking served him well, even when the coronavirus hit Spain. He directed 11 of his factories in Galicia, northwestern Spain, to move immediately to the manufacture of personal protective equipment (PPE). Zara also delivered washable, splash-proof and even stylish turquoise hospital gowns for medical workers in the city of La Coruña. Shortly thereafter, Ortega transported another 3 million PPE units from China, along with 1,450 fans for Spain.

In a pre-coronavirus world, Ortega's way of doing business has sparked much controversy. In 2015, Zara was accused of discriminate against black employees in their corporate offices (Zara denied the reports), while conditions in factories in Brazil were compared to “slavery” (Zara Brasil responded to the accusations saying that "the alleged crimes pointed out in the inspection report refer to the conduct of third parties that should not be confused with those of Zara"). In 2016, Inditex was accused of Tax evasion worth more than 550 million euros, about $ 596 million (Inditex published a long answer denying the allegations). In 2017, they started making clothes for Zara in Turkey help requests for flooring.

When confronted with these claims from Brazil and Turkey, Zara turned to the argument often used by major brands that depend on cheap labor for supply chains – they had a contract with the factory and only the factory. The way these factories treat their employees is not the brand's business.

"This is completely untrue, of course," Andrew Tillett-Saks, a labor rights activist who lives and works in Myanmar, told BuzzFeed News. “If these brands indicated any interest in keeping workers safe, factories would immediately follow suit. The fact is, brands have all the power to change things. They just don't do it because they prioritize their financial profits over the people who make their clothes. "

To some extent, fashion exploration practices appeared to be about to change after a huge factory accident in Bangladesh Rana Plaza in 2013, when an eight-story office building collapsed, killing more than 1,000 clothing workers. Inditex was among the 200 fast fashion brands that signed worker safety agreement for Bangladeshi workers after the accident – but more and more, that agreement is no longer important. This month, for example, thousands of workers, including those who sew clothes for Zara, are returning to clothing factories in Bangladesh, even during the pandemic.

Courtesy of the Myan Mode union

Workers protest unsafe conditions at clothing factories in Yangon, Myanmar.

Like Thingyan, Myanmar's annual water festival, which started in April, hundreds of workers returned to their cities, uncertain about when they would return to work. Some had accepted a small indemnity from the factory; others do not. Myint said that she and the other union members were increasingly certain that they were being punished. Another factory, Rui Ning, located in the same industrial complex as Myan Mode, laid off 30% of its workers, most of whom were also union members. At this point, the coronavirus crisis was also growing: Yangon imposed a blockade during the April 10-19 holiday season, as well as an evening curfew when it was discovered that 80% of the country's positive COVID-19 cases were in the capital.

In the past, unions and NGOs were afraid to publicly call brands, because they were afraid of what happened in Myan Mode and Rui Ning – the troublemakers would be fired, or the brand would close that particular factory and sign a contract with another. "The owners closed the factory briefly to reopen quickly with new non-union workers," said Tillet-Saks, a labor rights activist. "They often change technical details, such as the factory name or registrant, to circumvent labor laws, while maintaining the same main operation."

Obtained by BuzzFeed News

A union leader in Rui Ning explains what happened at the factory.

But the prospect of being unemployed during a pandemic can change that. Last month, some 30 Myan Mode union members who were fired turned up daily outside the factory gates in protest, where they ate, slept and sang union songs. The union also contacted the South Korean consulate and the Yangon Arbitration Council. "If that doesn't work, we can even sue," a leader told BuzzFeed News on the condition of anonymity. BuzzFeed News also learned that union members from the Myan Mode and Rui Ning unions contacted union workers in Spain, who assured them that they would pressure negotiations with Inditex and Mango.

“If Spanish unions help, this is a big step in the international labor rights movement. This will mean a lot to the union in Myanmar, ”said Tillett-Saks, who was aware of the emails exchanged between the unions in Myanmar and Spain. “As employers and brands are so multinational, workers also need to come together internationally if they are to have the power to improve the garment industry. All they want is for the dismissed workers to be reinstated and not to use the pandemic as an excuse to attack the union. "

From Inditex itself code of conduct says the company supports unions and wants factories to treat workers in the supply chain with care for their health and safety. Days after BuzzFeed News contacted the company's ethics committee to get a response on the Myan Mode worker layoff, an Inditex representative said the Myan Mode dispute with 29 workers had been resolved through dialogue and that the factory agreed to reinstate Protestant workers. The more than 500 workers who accepted compensation could possibly return to the factory after they resume work at full capacity – although it was unclear when that might happen.

"We communicate with suppliers to follow the recommendations and instructions of the local government and / or implement measures to ensure that they are following the health protection guidelines for workplaces detailed by WHO in relation to Covid 19," wrote the representative from Inditex.

"We are working closely with our suppliers at this difficult time and look forward to continued compliance with our Code of Conduct, which clearly requires fair treatment of workers and no discrimination against workers' representatives."

But union workers said the Zara olive branch, which arrived on May 6, more than a month after the layoff of 571 workers, was a belated attempt at damage control. "This union breakdown case using COVID-19 as coverage has not yet been resolved," a union official told BuzzFeed News, speaking on condition of anonymity. The union worker said the offer to restore 29 people fell short of the union's demands.

For example, more than 500 workers who were laid off still had no jobs, and the fact that they accepted an insignificant severance was being used against them. Myan Mode did not comply with an agreement that it would not target the union and lay off workers during the pandemic, the union member said. Myan Mode still refuses to officially recognize the union, while hiring hundreds of daily migrant workers who are not members of any union.

Mango did not respond to a request for comment from BuzzFeed News.

Sai Aung Main / Getty Images

Firefighters wearing protective clothing spray disinfectant along a street as a preventive measure against the spread of COVID-19 in Yangon on April 23.

Across Asia, countries had two types of responses to the pandemic: complete shutdowns, such as India and Sri Lanka, or partial restricted shutdowns, such as Cambodia, Indonesia and Myanmar, where governments banned meetings but kept the factories running. While these decisions largely depend on the health of each country's domestic economy, countries that suddenly close their borders have caused panic – particularly among the poorest and most invisible populations of migrant workers, who cross domestic and international borders in search of work. This exodus of worried workers, desperate to return home as the worst economic and health crisis grows around them, is occurring together with spikes in COVID-19 cases.

Everything is terrible – but the pandemic is of particular concern to the people who make our clothes, because the ready-made clothing makers work on short-term contracts or are sometimes paid for clothing, precariously close to poverty. Many brands have already canceled orders for clothes that have already been placed in factories and many have denied the promised payments to workers in Asia. Consumers' relentless hunger for branded clothing and fast fashion means that when the worst of the crisis is over and our appetite for shopping returns, all a big brand needs to do is find the next group of cheap workers.

For a long time, we have pretended that fast fashion and ecological awareness can coexist, that the worst excesses of operating clothing stores are a thing of the past. Brands like Zara and Mango advertise sustainability in all their stores; other brands assure customers that they recycle all of their packaging. But in the middle of a pandemic, it is no longer enough to use false concern. ●

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