Textile, clothing, leather and footwear industries employ more than 600,000 people in eight South-East European countries. There are growth opportunities notably thanks to nearby major European markets. 

However national and local union leaders reported that it was difficult to attract young workers, because salaries were as low as 200-400 euros per month in some countries. Millions of people had left for Western Europe in search of better lives. 

Employer associations from Albania, Bulgaria, North Macedonia, Romania and Serbia expressed their support for increasing wages in order to secure enough qualified workforce. But they said they needed help from their clients, the brands.  

Fashion brands H&M, Inditex, ASOS and Benetton pledged their cooperation for a sustainable transformation. The ACT living wage initiative provides the methodology for purchasing practices that enable the payment of living wages. Respect of reedom of association and industry-level collective agreements are other central elements of this model.  

Unions reported progress on rebuilding national level collective bargaining. Just days earlier, a sectoral framework agreement was signed in Bulgaria. It provides a set of rights to workers and a lowest salary which is 7 percent higher than the legal minimum wage. Talks on sectoral collective agreements have also been launched in Albania and Croatia. In North Macedonia, unions and employers are working to improve the coverage of the existing branch accord.

Unions recognised that key to progress was building trade union power through organising and growth. In 2018-19, unions in the region had recruited 6,500 new members. There were also job losses because of fluctuations in production. All participating unions got a certificate of achievement for their action. 

Despite a hostile environment, affiliates promised to continue building stronger unions with the help of detailed mappings and strategic organising plans. They will be supported by their European and global organisations and Western European affiliates from Sweden, Spain, Germany, Italy and Belgium who were present at the conference. 

Representatives of the European Commission and industry associations Cotance and CEC offered their cooperation on developing social dialogue and capacity building. 

Luc Triangle, industriAll Europe’s General Secretary said:

    "Workers leaving South-East Europe, companies lacking work forces, and disadvantaged regions in South-East Europe alarmingly running out of inhabitants are to continue if wages, working conditions and living standards are not raised to higher standards. Strong trade unions and sectoral employers’ associations taking responsibility for their industries by negotiating collective agreements are needed to give the fashion industry and their workers a future in South-East Europe”

Kemal Özkan, IndustriALL Global Union’s Assistant General Secretary said:

    What is needed in Southeast Europe is a sustainable economy and we believe textile and garment industries can play a key role for this with living wages and decent working conditions. But, obviously, without mobilization on the ground and capacity building this will not happen. We need to strengthen our structures and develop effective industrial relations in the supply chain. Global framework agreements give us an opportunity to do so. Therefore, we welcome the commitment of global brands at this Conference to work towards improving purchasing practices and supporting collective agreements at industry level”.

The conference was part of an EU-funded project “Strengthening the capacity of trade unions in South-East Europe to improve wages and working conditions in the garment and footwear sectors”, carried out in cooperation between industriAll Europe and IndustriALL Global Union. The project covers Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania and Serbia. In addition, affiliates from Bosnia-Herzegovina were invited to the conference.

For more information or further comment please contact industriAll Europe's strategic organiser Ildikó Krén.