As Eastern Europe’s garment sector grows, it faces an ageing workforce and struggles to meet regulations

Eastern Europe’s garment industry at a glance

Eastern Europe’s economy has grown significantly over the past decade as many of its countries have joined the European Union. Fair Wear has an active presence in North Macedonia, Romania and Bulgaria. These countries in particular have felt the benefits of this economic boom, especially within their garment industries. This growth is expected to continue as more and more countries move their production from Asia to Eastern Europe. We’re seeing this shift mainly due to rising prices in Asia and political uncertainty in Egypt and Syria. While this is good news for the region’s garment industries, these countries are also faced with ageing workforces as young people leave in large numbers to pursue better-paying jobs elsewhere.

Labour issues in Eastern Europe’s garment industry

While labour legislation tends to be stronger across Eastern Europe as compared to other Fair Wear countries, getting factories to actually meet and follow these regulations is a major issue. In Bulgaria, a lack of fixed working hours, excessive overtime without correct compensation and tax evasion are common, while in Macedonia a lack of effective labour law enforcement, social dialogue and the right to freedom of association are widespread concerns. Romania also struggles with these issues, and recent changes in labour legislation have made it even harder for garment workers to organise. Another big struggle facing this region is the fight for a living wage. This is especially true in North Macedonia, where the legal minimum is still way below country benchmarks.

What Fair Wear is doing

Fair Wear has been active in North Macedonia since 2004 and in Romania and Bulgaria since 2006. In North Macedonia, 18 Fair Wear member brands source from 44 factories, while in Romania, 22 Fair Wear member brands source from 65 factories. Finally, in Bulgaria, there are 19 Fair Wear member brands that source from 38 factories.

The Fair Wear Workplace Education Programme (WEP) is a key part of our work in all of these countries. Through it, training sessions with factory management and workers are held to raise awareness about workers’ rights and the Fair Wear complaints helplines available for workers to voice their concerns. While, so far, the number of complaints in these countries has been low, Fair Wear continues to promote the helplines and workers’ rights to organise so they are empowered to improve their situation. Across this region, our focus remains on increasing wages, ensuring fair working hours and promoting social dialogue. Since 2014, we’ve also been working on dedicated wage projects in North Macedonia with the support of CNV Internationaal, most notable of which is the Living Wage Project. This pilot project looked at how to increase workers’ wages by increasing productivity in factories. The idea was that once factories were able to produce more with less input, money would be freed up that could then be put into workers’ pockets. We used three main tools in this project: our labour-minute costing tool which calculates how much wages need to be raised in a factory in order for workers to earn a living wage and how much extra brands would need to pay to cover these additional costs, a guide on living wage costing and a series of WEP training sessions. The project was considered a success, helping to raise salaries for workers without sacrificing profits for the participating factories. As we move forward, we are applying the lessons learned to more factories in this region and in other Fair Wear countries around the world.

Interested in calculating labour minute value and product costing for this country? Check out our country calculators here.


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