warsaw – They gave me the job without signing the contract. The salary was below the current Polish minimum wage and would be paid under the table, and there was no insurance. But when I went back to the factory and identified myself as a journalist, the company owners denied everything.Thank you for reading this post, don't forget to subscribe!
In 2023 alone, Poles spent 65 billion PLN (about 14 billion euros) on clothing. Poland is also the 12th largest exporter of clothing worldwide, according to financial services company PKO BP Polska. Fashion brands prefer to display the “Made in Poland” label, which aims to guarantee good quality and “sustainable” production standards, and to distinguish these brands from Asian sweatshops, which have attracted heavy media attention. Have done.
Customers of Polish garment factories include not only local designers but also some of the largest European brands.
We checked out what’s included in the lauded “Made in Poland” tag – and what we found isn’t pretty.
no contract? No problem
The entrance to “Joan’s Sewing Shop” in Łódź is guarded by a giant plastic horse head. The gray office building also houses a riding shop, a showroom for bathroom fittings and a digital embroidery shop. The “Zone” sign is barely visible. Despite its inconspicuous location, this is a company that has been in business for 40 years and is linked to the Leviathan Confederation, which collects EU subsidies for innovative businesses. According to the Fashion Facility Checker portal, the zone produces clothes for, among others, the German corporation Otto Group (which includes the Eddie Bauer, Bonprix, Lascana, Sport Chek and Shego brands).
When I enter the factory secretly, the owner welcomes me. I tell her I worked at a sewing shop in my hometown, and I can fold, pack, and iron clothes.
“When would you like to start? Tomorrow?”, the owner asks me. “We will arrange a two-week trial period”, when I agree he adds, “During the trial period, we pay 17 PLN [3.67 euro] per hour. We will talk after these two weeks. You will work eight hours a day, including two Saturdays.”
And that’s how, I got a job at one of the largest textile companies in the area.
Faster and faster!
The sewing room is several dozen meters long. It is filled with large fabric cutting machines, sewing machines and hangers containing thick coats, short, colorful jackets and elegant pink dresses. A label bearing the brand “WEILL” is attached to a long hanger. On a table I see another brand label: “S.Oliver”. Camouflage clothing embroidered with Polish flags lay on another.
About 40 employees move quickly around the hall. Women aged 30–40 dominate, but there are also some older women. I don’t see very many men.
Most of my colleagues here work 10 hours a day: 6 am to 4 pm.
The manager pushes a cart toward me with a stack of shorts. My job is to check the size, lay the shorts flat, and then fold them in half, tuck the crotch up, roll under, and put the already packaged T-shirt on top. After that, I have to take a plastic bag, put the kit in it, and seal and label it. The T-shirt is light gray and features a red logo with an eagle and the words “Polish Army” on the chest.
I have to keep 20 sets of shirts and shorts in each box. And it continued like this the whole day.
One of the workers, Eva, is running in front of me. She is 40 years old and wears a red ponytail and a T-shirt that reads “Free your creative soul”. He has worked in sewing factories all his life. For the last three days, she has been trimming the long threads of the shorts and grooming them. She was assigned this job by her local employment office, and she is grateful that she has it.
“Take off your sweatshirt, you’ll get hot, all these machines make it hot,” she advises me.
Actually, there is no fresh air in the sewing hall. I take off my sweatshirt. Soon, I start feeling sweat on my nose, and the plastic I’m packing starts sticking to my sweaty hands. I learned that most of my colleagues here work 10 hours a day: 6 am to 4 pm.
The manager doesn’t talk to me except to give strict orders: “Not like that”, “We don’t leave anything like that”, “We don’t mess up”, “Don’t throw my stickers in the trash”.
Behind me, workers are cutting thick layers of cloth. A loud, high-pitched sound travels through the plant and echoes in your head. In this noise, conversations are short and rare: what is there, where it is, what needs to be done, where are the L’s, where are the XL’s, are they good or need improvement, where are you going after work today. . Everyone concentrated on their respective work.
I stand in one position for several hours. Reaching left and reaching down, turning left, reaching right. This routine causes strain on my back.
“Everyone is paid differently”
Around 11:30 I started feeling very hungry. No one is stopping me from going out for a holiday, but I feel I have to hurry. Around 1 pm, I take a roll from the cupboard and sit in the dining room. Several women quickly eat their food, three of them talking in sign language.
I eat the roll quickly, then run to the smoking room upstairs for a cigarette. I ask my 50-year-old friend how his day is going.
“Ridiculous,” she says.
“Is it always this fast?” I asked him.
“Okay, mostly. Shipments are leaving now”, she replies.
Another co-worker told us about his sleep problems. “I go to bed at eight and wake up at three in the morning,” she said.
I go back to my desk. Cardboard boxes gradually disappear. We work standing all day long. Eva begins to notice the time: “One more hour”. She tells me, at least it’s good to go to the toilet to stretch your legs.
The room gets a little quiet after 4pm, but there are still about a dozen people left.
“Do you know if the rate will remain the same after the trial period?” I ask the receptionist on my way out.
“I can’t tell you”, she replies. “Everyone is paid differently here”.
After a long day of work, I still don’t have a contract, but the office receptionist gives me a card to enter the hall. No one wants to talk to me about employment conditions.
After returning home, I found the jackets I saw at the factory online. They are from Weil Paris, a famous foreign brand. Price of this jacket? 675 euros.
Jeans for the best designers in Poland
I tried to find a job in six other sewing factories in and around Lodz.
My next stop, the aptly named “Factory,” is even more obscure than the Zone. There is no sign on the big building. The owner of the company told me she would be happy to train me as a tailor: “We don’t have a tailor because we don’t need one. We have a lot of work to do”, she claims. “We sew jeans for the best designers in Poland, Robert Kupisz, Maciej Zien… You are joining a very good company”.
“What rate were you expecting per hour?” she asks me.
“Okay, minimum wage, that would be nice”, I tell him.
“I don’t know what the minimum is”, she replies.
“20-21 PLN [about 4.32 euro] Hourly, something like that, depending on whether you will pay social security contributions for me or not”, I tell him.
“20 PLN is out of the question,” she says, offering a trial period with a lower salary for the first two months. She adds, “If I see that you’re working hard, we’ll do 17.50 or 18.50 PLN per hour, something like that.”
“And after all this time, will there be a chance for a contract? So that I have some insurance?”
“As a general rule, we register that you are working for one eighth of the entire shift. Then you have insurance, you have doctors, you have everything. Let’s give it a month, okay?”
“And if I check out, if I do a good job, how much can I make in six months?”
“I won’t answer that question because I don’t know what will happen in six months”.
everything is legal
A few days later, when I went back to Joan’s sewing shop as a reporter, the company owners refused to hire anyone without a contract. He claims that everyone in his factory works eight hours a day, and that those who sew on Saturdays do so voluntarily. He claimed that all salaries were paid legally, adding that the Labor Inspectorate and the Social Insurance Service regularly investigated the company and found no irregularities.
Other companies we visited also refused to pay workers or hire them without contracts. The owners still paid double the price even when we alerted them about our investigation.
an industry with a dirty past
“Lodz and the surrounding area were the center of the textile industry in the socialist-era Polish People’s Republic,” says Łukasz, who has been in the industry for more than a dozen years. “The driving force was unlimited labor and unlimited demand. The 1990s came, big factories were closing, there was 20% unemployment in the area. There were so many seamstresses in the market, so people were generally treated like animals. Only then was the greatest wealth created. Today, these businesses are run by their children, but these huge profits are earned not by the youth but by their fathers”, he explains.
“Today, the largest Polish and foreign brands sew their clothes in this region”
Łukasz was a production coordinator in the largest companies in the region. He was making average money, so he left after gaining experience, connections in the industry, and a client base. He found a partner, took a loan for machines and opened his own sewing shop, which employs 30 people and makes clothes for top brands. He agreed to speak semi-anonymously about the state of the industry.
He explains that the key to understanding the current functioning of the industry lies in the huge Ptak market in Rzegów, near Łódź. It is Poland’s second largest textile market, and until recently, six million customers passed through Ptak’s stalls each year.
“In the 1990s, managers of bankrupt factories set up dyeing, weaving and knitting mills. They knew where to get cheap raw materials”, says Lukasz. “The Russians came in buses and packed the clothes in big checked bags. He bought everything. Whether it had a hole in it or not, they took it. Half of Eastern Europe was bought from us: Russia, Belarus, Ukraine. Buses were filled to the brim, trucks full of clothes were headed for the border. The boom ended in 2014, when the first sanctions against Russia went into effect and East began sewing at home. But today, the largest Polish and foreign brands sew their clothes in this region.
Lukasz lists the top brands: Bonprix, 4F, Hugo Boss, Kiosk, North, Medicin, Monnari, LPP Group. And the most fashionable Polish designers with exclusive boutiques in the center of Warsaw: Paprocki & Brzozowski, Zien, Ewa Minge and Lidia Kalita.
Certainly, the number of sweatshops has been falling for years, and not just because of the closure of the Eastern Market. Shortage of seamstresses is a big problem. The end of vocational education in Poland affected the industry, and today it is almost impossible to find a qualified seamstress. However, you wouldn’t know it from the chaotic ways of the ‘Made in Poland’ industry.
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