Inside The Polish Sweatshops Churning Out Clothes For Europe's Biggest Brands
In an undercover investigation for Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, journalist Dominika Klimek discovered the brutal reality of Poland’s sweatshops, which produce clothing for some of the biggest brands and best known designers in Europe.
WARSAW — They gave me a job without signing a contract. The salary was less than the current Polish minimum wage and would be paid under the table, and there was no insurance. But when I went back to the factory and disclosed my identity as a journalist, the company owners denied everything.
In 2023 alone, Poles spent 65 billion PLN (about 14 billion euros) on clothes. According to financial services company PKO BP Polska, Poland is also the 12th largest exporter of clothing worldwide. Fashion brands like to display the label “Made in Poland”, which is meant to guarantee good quality and “sustainable” production standards, and distinguish these brands from Asian sweatshops which have received heavy media attention.
The clientele of Polish garment factories include not just local designers but some of the largest European brands.
We investigated what goes into the vaunted “Made in Poland” tag – and what we found isn't pretty.
No Contract? No problem
The entrance to “Joan's sewing shop” in Łódź is guarded by a huge plastic horse's head. The gray office building also houses a riding shop, a showroom for bathroom fittings, and a digital embroidery shop. The "Joan" sign is barely visible. Despite this inconspicuous location, this is a company that's been in business for 40 years and is associated with the Lewiatan Confederation, which collects EU subsidies for innovative businesses. According to the Fashion Facility Checker portal, Joan produces clothes for, among others, the German corporation Otto Group (which includes the brands Eddie Bauer, Bonprix, Lascana, Sport Chek, and Sheego).
When I enter the factory undercover, the owner welcomes me. I tell her that I worked in a sewing shop in my hometown, and that I can fold, pack, and iron clothes.
“When would you like to start? Tomorrow?”, the owner asks me. “We will arrange a two-week trial period”, he continues when I agree, adding that “During the trial period, we pay 17 PLN [3.67 euro] per hour. After these two weeks, we will talk. You will work eight hours a day, including two Saturdays".
And just like that, I end up with a job at one of the largest clothing companies in the area.
The sewing room is several dozen meters long. It is full of large machines for cutting fabric, sewing machines, and hangers with thick coats, short, colorful jackets, and elegant pink dresses. A label carrying the brand “WEILL” is attached to a long hanger. On one of the tables I spot another brand label: "S.OLIVER". Camouflage clothes embroidered with Polish flags lie on yet another.
About 40 employees move quickly around the hall. Women aged 30-40 dominate, but there are also a few older ones. I don't see too many men.
Most of my colleagues work here 10 hours a day: from 6am to 4pm.
The manager pushes a cart with a stack of shorts towards me. My task is to check the size, lay the shorts flat, and then fold them in half, turn up the crotch, roll up the bottom, and place a T-shirt, already packed, on top. After that, I am to take a plastic bag, insert the kit, and seal and label it. The T-shirt is light gray and has a red logo with an eagle and the inscription "Polish Army" on the chest.
I am supposed to put 20 sets of shirts and shorts into each box. And so on throughout the day.
One of the workers, Ewa, is rushing in front of me. She is 40 and has a red ponytail and a T-shirt with the inscription "free your creative soul". She has worked in sewing factories all her life. For the past three days, she has been sprucing up shorts by cutting long threads attached to them. She was assigned to this job by her local employment office, and is grateful that she has it.
“Take off your sweatshirt, you'll be hot, all these machines make it hot,” she advises me.
Indeed, there is no fresh air in the sewing hall. I take off my sweatshirt. Soon, I begin to feel sweat on my nose, and the plastic I am packing into starts to stick to my sweaty hands. I learn that most of my colleagues work here 10 hours a day: from 6am to 4pm.
The manager doesn't speak to me, aside from giving strict orders: "Not like that", "We don't leave anything like that", "We don't make a mess", "Don't throw my stickers in the trash".
Behind me workers are cutting thick layers of fabric. A loud, high-pitched sound echoes through the plant, drilling into your head. Conversations in this noise are short and rare: what's where, what needs to be done, where are the L's, where are the XL's, are they good or do they need improvement, where are you going today after work. Everyone focused on their own assignment.
I stand in one position for several hours. Reaching left and down, turning left, reaching right. My back feels tense from this routine.
Ironing clothes at "Joan's sewing shop"
“Everyone is paid differently”
Around 11:30 I began to get very hungry. No one is stopping me from going out for a break, but I feel like I have to hurry. Around 1 pm, I grab a roll from the cupboard and sit down in the dining room. Several women quickly devour their provisions, three of them talking in sign language.
I eat the roll in a hurry, then run for a cigarette to the smoking room on the top floor. I ask my friend in her 50s how her day is going.
“Shitty”, she says.
“Is it always this fast?” I ask her.
“Well, mostly. Now there are shipments leaving”, she replies.
Another coworker tells us about her sleep problems. “I go to bed at eight, and I wake up at three in the morning”, she said.
I go back to my table. Cardboard boxes disappear slowly. We work standing all day long. Ewa begins to pay attention to the time: “One more hour". It's good to at least go to the toilet to stretch your legs, she tells me.
After 4 pm the room is a little quieter, but there are still a dozen or so people left.
“Do you know whether the rate will be the same after the trial period?” I ask the receptionist on my way out.
“I can’t tell you”, she replies. “Everyone is paid differently here”.
After a day of work, I still don't have a contract, but the office receptionist hands me a card to enter the hall. No one wants to talk to me about employment conditions.
After returning home, I found the jackets I saw in the factory online. They’re from Weill Paris, a well-known foreign brand. The price of this jacket? 675 euros.
Jeans for the best designers in Poland
I tried to find a job in six other sewing factories in Łódź and its surrounding area.
My next stop, aptly named, “Factory”, is even more obscure than Joan's. There is no sign on the large building. The owner of the company tells me she will be happy to train me as a seamstress: “We don't have a sign because we don't need it. We have so much work to do”, she boasts. “We sew jeans for the best designers in Poland, Robert Kupisz, Maciej Zień... You are joining a very good company”.
“What rate were you expecting per hour?” she asks me.
“Well, the minimum wage, that would be nice”, I tell her.
“I don't know what the minimum is”, she replies.
“20-21 PLN [about 4.32 euro] per hour, something like that, it depends on whether you would pay social security contributions for me”, I tell her.
“20 PLN is out of the question”, she says, offering a trial period with a lower salary for the first two months. “If I see that you've been working hard, we'll do 17.50 or 18.50 PLN per hour, something like that”, she adds.
“And after this time, would there be a chance for a contract? So that I have some insurance?”
“As a general rule, we register that you are working for one-eighth of a full shift. Then you have insurance, you have a doctor, you have everything. Let's give it a month, okay?”
“And if I checked out, if I worked well, how much could I earn in six months?”
“I won't answer that question because I have no idea what will happen in six months”.
Everything is legal
A few days later, when I went back to Joan's sewing shop as a journalist, the company owners denied employing anyone without a contract. They claim that everyone in their factory works eight hours a day, and that people who sew on Saturdays do so voluntarily. The entire salary is paid legally, they claimed, adding that the labor inspectorate and social insurance service regularly checked the company and found no irregularities.
Other companies we visited also denied paying workers under the table or employing them without a contract. The owners doubled down, even when we alerted them to our investigation.
Ptak market in Rzgów, near Łódź
An industry with a grimy past
“Łódź and the surrounding area were the center of the textile industry in the socialist-era Polish People's Republic”, says Łukasz, who has been in the industry for over a dozen years. “The driving force was unlimited labor and unlimited demand. The 1990s came, large factories were closing down, there was 20% unemployment in the region. There were a lot of seamstresses on the market, so generally people were treated like animals. That's when the greatest fortunes were made. Today, these businesses are run by their children, but these big profits were not earned by the young people but by their fathers”, he explains.
"Today, the largest Polish and foreign brands get their clothes sewed in the region”
Łukasz was a production coordinator in the largest companies in the region. He was earning mediocre money, so he left, having gained experience, connections in the industry, and a customer base. He found a partner, took out a loan for machines, and opened his own sewing shop, which employs 30 people and manufactures clothes for top brands. He agreed to talk semi-anonymously about the state of the industry.
He explains that the key to understanding the current workings of the industry lies in the gigantic Ptak market in Rzgów, near Łódź. This is the second largest clothes bazaar in Poland, and until recently, six million customers passed through the stalls at Ptak every year.
“In the 1990s, managers from bankrupt factories established dyeing, knitting, and weaving mills. They knew where to get cheap raw materials”, Łukasz says. “The Russians arrived in buses and packed the clothes into large checkered bags. They bought everything. Whether it had holes or not, they took it. Half of Eastern Europe bought from us: Russia, Belarus, Ukraine. Buses were loaded to the ceiling, trucks of clothes were heading to the border. This boom ended in 2014, when the first sanctions against Russia came into force, and the East started sewing at home. But today, the largest Polish and foreign brands get their clothes sewed in the region”.
Łukasz lists the top brands: Bonprix, 4F, Hugo Boss, Kiosque, Answer, Medicine, Monnari, LPP group. And the most fashionable Polish designers with exclusive boutiques in the center of Warsaw: Paprocki & Brzozowski, Zień, Eva Minge, and Lidia Kalita.
To be sure, the number of sweatshops has been falling for years, and not only because of the closure of the eastern market. The lack of seamstresses is a huge problem. The industry was hit by the end of vocational education in Poland, and finding a qualified seamstress is almost impossible today. You wouldn't know that, however, going by the lawless ways of the 'Made in Poland' industry.
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