The whir of sewing machines sounds from street-level windows all over the downtown Athens districts of Patissia, Galatsi and Stathmos Larissis is a constant monotone. Every once in a while, a person emerges from these basement workshops for a cigarette break or to get something from a kiosk.
Within a few kilometers of what are basically sweatshops, clothing store owners arrange their window displays and stuff their racks and shelves with new collections at “special discounts.” The two worlds, so close geographically, illustrate the deep chasm in a part of the clothing industry between facade and reality.
“From fifth place in Europe on the global slavery index, Greece shot up to second in 2018 as a result of the thousands of refugees who found themselves trapped in Greece and have become victims of exploitation because they have such limited options,” says Dr Fiori Zafeiropoulou, an expert in social entrepreneurship and coordinator for Fashion Revolution’s Greek branch.
Businesses working in the so-called “cut-make-trim” (CMT) stage represent a part of the garment industry where labor exploitation is rife, and such sweatshops, where workers, many of them minors, are forced to spend almost the entire day stooped over a sewing machine for just 2 or 3 euros, have become a booming business in the Greek capital.
“The agreement was for me to get paid 400 euros a months to sleep in the workshop. I was the only worker who lived in,” says 17-year-old Hasan. The Pakistani teenager, who asked that his last name be withheld, had already learned how to make basic garments back home, but the demands were much greater at the Athens workshop where he got a job.
“I only got paid for the first seven months and every time I’d ask where my money was, I was given some excuse or another. When I asked for a small amount to get food, the boss swore at me.”
His Greek boss’s favorite threat was: “You’re a kid and you don’t have papers. If you leave, you’ll get arrested.”
Asif is also 17 and was introduced to the industry by a friend within two weeks of arriving in Greece two years ago, when he was sleeping outdoors on a bench.
“I stayed for six months and never got paid,” says the teenager. “He did give me around 20 euros a month for food, though.” One day he had enough and “escaped” with his boss shouting threats at him. According to Asif, the boss had cheated all of his workers.
The boss where Mounir, 17, worked had built a wooden shed inside the workshop which could sleep several workers at a time. He had also built a special cupboard where he would hide workers in the event that he saw labor inspectors approaching his threshold on the security camera outside the sweatshop’s entrance.
Javed is perhaps the only young migrant we spoke with who has good memories from his experience at such a workshop. “The boss was nice, he let me listen to music while I sewed and he also taught me how to use a machine. He paid me 1.50 to 2 euros an hour,” he says, adding that he worked there for nine months.
“The boss was a Syrian who had come to Greece and he had a contract with a very well-known firm. I worked beside older, experienced tailors who got better pay,” he adds.
Young refugees and migrants who have come to Greece without a parent or guardian and have fallen through the cracks are not the only victims of exploitation, however, as many staying at accommodation facilities are also exploited, according to social workers at three shelters.
“When a school calls me and tells me that one of my kids has been absent a lot without a good excuse or when I see one them having made a significant purchase like a cell phone, for example, I know they’ve found part-time work,” says one of the social workers, who declined to be named.
About one-third of the 25 children staying at each of the three shelters contacted by Kathimerini have worked at a clothing manufacturer at one point or another.
“They are mainly teenagers who have had to grow up fast and who have already worked when they were younger back home,” says another of the social workers. “Their needs are covered at the shelter, but they want money they can send to their families,” the same social worker says.
“I started working as soon as I could walk properly. I got paid 10 cents a day and was so proud when I came back home every day because I thought I was contributing to the family budget,” says Javed.
The minors will only reach out to their social workers for help when the going gets rough. “One of the boys approached me almost in tears because he was owed a lot of money,” the director of one of the shelters told Kathimerini.
“I contacted the owner of the manufacturing firm, who tried to convince me that she’d gone out of business when she’d only changed addresses.” The social worker eventually convinced the woman to pay the money owed, albeit in installments.
“In order to send a message to those who so blatantly exploit teenagers and children, in violation of the laws that govern this European Union country, I have decided to file a complaint with the authorities,” the social worker.
The Social Fashion Factory, SOFFA, was founded by Zafeiropoulou over three years ago to “provide for the livelihoods of refugees and survivor victims of human trafficking through integration into work and micro-entrepreneurism.”
“We have worked with many vulnerable social groups including unemployed people, trafficking victims and refugees, all of them minors,” she says. “Up until now we did this with mobile units that move between the camp in Lavrio, eastern Attica, the Kypseli Municipal Market in central Athens and other locations.”
SOFFA, whose shareholders also include migrants, has grouped together with other social enterprises (in food preparation, hairdressing, carpentry etc) in a renovated factory in Elaionas, near central Athens and close to the capital’s biggest migrant camp.
“We are not a charity, we work to execute real orders,” stresses Zafeiropoulou. “We have 77 people already registered for our next project and many on the waiting list.”
The business pays 4 euros an hour, plus social security benefits. “We don’t receive any funding or subsidies and have to compete with very low prices, so we’re not always busy,” she explains. “Other firms produce a cotton bag for 20 cents and sell it for 1 euro, while we pay the tailor 50 cents per bag and sell it for 4 euros.”
One of the most time-consuming parts of her job is explaining to companies how and why their products cost as much as they do.
“They are interested in exploring whether the materials being used are eco-friendly, but not the working conditions that prevail in the production chain – starting in the cotton field,” says Zafeiropoulou.