The exploitation of Zara workers in Chile

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LabourChileLabour rightsTrade unions

Despite being 60 per cent owned by Amancio Ortega, the third richest person on the planet, the Spanish multinational Zara is exploiting its employees in Chile, imposing poor pay and working conditions.

In response, the workers have decided to form a single union and are fighting for decent work.

Equal Times recently spoke to Carmencita Verdugo, the president of the union representing Zara employees in Chile (Sindicato Zara Chile).

She underlined that the bad practices of the fashion brand are a worldwide phenomenon and that “what Zara does is to sell an image, but hidden behind that image are the precarious conditions affecting the lives of many people.”

Ortega’s company has been linked to the use of immigrants as slave labour in countries such as Brazil and Argentina.

Not directly but through its subcontracting arrangements with textile and garment workshops.

In Brazil, it had to pay a fine of US$1.8 million, but as Verdugo explains: “Zara is a company that would rather pay fines than rectify its bad labour practices”.


Dictatorship-era labour legislation

Conscious that workers not only have duties but also rights, Verdugo, after becoming the president of Sindicato Zara Chile, has been battling alongside her colleagues to have them respected.

Eighty per cent of the 600 workers currently employed by the company have joined the union.

“We wanted to change the paradigm of what a trade union organisation represents, we wanted to educate the trade union movement, the members and empower ourselves in the process,” explained Verdugo, who is fighting to make the organised workers’ voice heard despite the management’s constant efforts to silence it.

The people working for Zara are generally young people who have to pay for their studies, because there is no free public university education in Chile.

Their basic monthly pay corresponds to the minimum wage (US$380) for a nine-hour day and a 45-hour week. In addition, they receive three per cent of the sales. This percentage was previously two per cent but the trade union succeeded in negotiating a one per cent increase.

Most of those working for the company can only, however, opt to work a part-time, 20-hour week, which provides them with basic pay of US$168 a month.

Verdugo recognises that, aside from the company’s poor labour policy, they are also up against Chile’s unequal labour legislation, which is heavily tipped in favour of the employers, with mechanisms inherited from the dictatorship still firmly in place, such as the provision allowing workers to be replaced during a strike and those undermining collective bargaining.


ILO Conventions Chile has ratified but does not respect

“Many of the employees have no knowledge about payslips and the world of work in general,” laments Verdugo, who sees the education of her colleagues as a key part of her trade union work.

“Our demands are related to the low level of pay, the ambiguity of certain contracts , the long working hours, the harassment and the high turnover of employees, but we have also denounced infringements of the health and safety code, as we are not provided with hygienic toilet facilities and the emergency exits have been blocked by boxes of merchandise, among other health and safety hazards,” she adds.

The trade union receives around six complaints of harassment every month.

Zara, for its part, has changed the internal regulations various times without consulting the workers.

As a result of these changes, the sales employees, for instance, now also have to perform warehouse duties, loading and unloading trucks in the early hours of the morning, whereas this work was previously done by specific warehouse staff.

For Valentina Doniez, a researcher with the Chilean NGO the Sol Foundation: “This ‘polyfunctionality’ is another aspect of precarious employment, as companies often use it as a way of stepping up the workload and, therefore, putting more pressure on workers. In addition, one of the main problems is that this ‘polyfunctionality’ is not clearly defined as the law says it should be, each task that has to be performed is not established; it is, rather, a bottomless pit where the worker is expected to be available and ready to do anything the employer needs.”

Carmencita Verdugo is clear: “On the outside, Zara exhibits a profile of very well-dressed and polite workers, but on the inside the employment conditions are very poor and we will not rest until we have improved them.”


Abuses by “EsclaviZara”

Zara, as part of the INDITEX group, has a framework agreement with UNI Global Union, which says it wants to “change the rules of the game in the global labour market and guarantee justice and equality for working people”.

For Verdugo, “If it wasn’t for this agreement, there would be even greater persecution of the trade union leaders, as well as the workers and union representatives who are constantly dismissed, which the company tries to justify with its job rotation policy.”

The company, which is doing all it can to stamp out its employees’ status as workers, has increased its hostility towards the trade union since it published a cartoon of Ortega with a text about how he has built his fortune on the back of worker exploitation.

“Since we started to use our freedom of expression, the relations with the management have been cut off. The person we are supposed to engage with is Paula Vásquez, the head of human resources; the general manager is Kurt Burgermeister, who they brought from Turkey and who is trying to convince the employees that we are the company’s collaborators, thus disregarding our status as workers,” explains Verdugo.

The Sindicato Zara Chile has announced that it “will not stand for threats or abuses, neither against the trade union leaders nor the workers”.

And it has been true to its word, denouncing various abuses, but whilst the labour inspectorate of La Florida processes the fines, the same cannot be said of the labour inspectorate in the Oriente de Santiago sector.

“They give the company various days to present their case and they give us three hours,” denounced Verdugo.

Zara, with its double standards, says it has good relations with trade union leaders, however, even though it knows that in Chile the law establishes that the minimum wage has to be paid when over two thirds of the working day are worked, it does not do so.

Once again, the nickname “EsclaviZara” [combining the Spanish word for “slavery” and Zara] given to the company by the Alameda Foundation in Argentina, which denounced the use of immigrants as slave labour, is also relevant on the other side of the Andes, where its employees are organising to fight for their rights and reveal the abuses committed by the company.