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Zara accused in Brazil ‘slave labour’ inquiry

Spanish fashion chain’s parent denies claims but will compensate 15 migrants ‘rescued’ from Sao Paulo sweatshop

Retail fashion chain Zara is under investigation by Brazil’s ministry of labour after a contractor in Sao Paulo was found to be using “slave labour” to make garments for the Spanish company.

The Brazilian government listed 52 charges against Inditex, Zara’s parent company, after it “rescued” 15 workers from a factory sub-contracted by AHA, the company responsible for 90% of Zara’s Brazilian production. Fourteen of the workers were Bolivians and one from Peru. One was 14.

Inditex said in a statement that it could not be held responsible for “unauthorised outsourcing”but would compensate the workers because AHA had violated Inditex’s code of conduct. Zara has 1,540 stores worldwide including 64 in the UK.

The response has not satisfied the Brazilian authorities. “AHA is a logistical extension of its main client, Zara Brasil,” said the prosecutor Giuliana Cassiano Orlandi. “The company is responsible for its employees. Its raison d’etre is making clothes and it follows that it must know who is producing its garments.”

Inditex said its 50 suppliers last year produced 7m garments, with only 0.03% made in unlicensed workshops. It was working closely with the ministry of labour to eradicate sweatshop conditions.

Renato Bignami, who led the investigation, said the workers – who lived on the premises – worked 12-hour shifts in dangerous and unhealthy conditions.

One Bolivian told the TV channel A Liga that the labour component of a pair of Zara jeans selling at 6 (£76) was .14, which was divided between the seven people involved in the process. The workers earned between 6 and 0 a month. The minimum wage in Brazil is 4.

The investigation began after unions reported last June that sweatshops in Sao Paulo were producing garments for Zara. “Before then, no accusations had been made against Zara,” said Maria Susiclea Assis of the local garment-makers’ union.

Bignami said the economic crisis in Spain was driving impoverished migrant workers from places such as Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru back to Brazil, which is in a boom. The high exchange rate for the Brazilian real means that, even at these wages, workers can send money home.

“They work 16 or even 18 hours a day,” he said. “It is extremely exhausting work, from Monday to Saturday, sometimes even Sunday depending on demand. I’ve seen workers who have taken home R0-250 (£57-94) at the end of the month – after paying off housing debt, food debt, telephone card debt, debt [to people traffickers] for the journey here.”

Many have to work for three or four months to pay off the “coyotes” who have smuggled them into the country.

“These are classic cases of immigrant sweat shops,” Bignami said, adding that he had no doubt that such labour conditions characterised modern-day slavery. Workers often face “threats, coercion, physical violence. All this to increase productivity,” he added.

Ineke Zeldenrust of the Clean Clothes Campaign, in Amsterdam, said this type of sub-contracting was commonplace in the garment trade. “It is Zara’s responsibility to know who is making their clothes,” she said. “According to the code of conduct that they have signed up to, they are responsible for everyone involved in the supply chain. It is up to them to do the monitoring.”

Zara is a family business founded in 1975 in La Coruña, north-west Spain by Amancio Ortega who has become Spain’s richest man and the seventh richest in the world. According to Forbes magazine, half of production remains in Spain, with 26% per cent in Europe and the remainder spread around the world.

In July, 300 Zara employees staged a demonstration in Madrid, complaining that 80% of the mainly female workforce were on temporary contracts. They earn €830 for a 40-hour week. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds