“I want to give voices to people who are muted by the society” Interview with Laura Stefanut

People say a Journalists duty is to make a good story. The Romanian freelance Journalist Laura Stefanut sees it differently. For her it is not about the most fascinating and compelling narration. She wants to tell her readers the truth and reveal the average situations. Her main concern is to outline the working conditions in textile factories within the EU. We have talked to the young journalist about fashion, brands and her experiences while working in a textile factory.

Do you have a piece of clothing from Zara, H&M or Marco Polo?

Yes, I do

And are you still buying there?

I buy second hand, but sometimes you just don’t find the things you need in second hand. I try to reduce my personal consumption to the minimum. I believe that people should not stop buying from brands, as brands can be made accountable. But people should buy less.

How important do you consider fashion?

Well, fashion definitely is very important to our society. I mean, just have look at how people consume. The whole industry shows that clothes are not something to discard. Liking fashion does not mean being shallow. It is really important for people to express themselves. Clothes sometimes make people feel better or stronger and it is a medium for them to communicate with the world. So fashion really is important, but it should also be important for people to know how it is made. People should also understand how the system works and this way correct the flaws, which lay definitely in the system.

What would you consider as the biggest problem in the fashion industry?

We actually have the resources to satisfy everybody. But what happens is that the brands have the biggest profits and the factories, which produce clothes they fight among each other to give low prices. And the workers, who are the majority, they are the ones who are suffering the most, who are working hard and still remain poor, who are living lives at the subsistence level. This is really sad.

Made in Europe is not a guarantee for good working conditions. What would you say, what lies behind the tab “Made in Europe”?

Unfortunately not only cheap brands, but also very expensive brands in Europe rely on exploited work force. I did not find any factory giving living wages. The salaries are very low, sometimes in big factories they do not get paid for months in a row. When they try to ask for a rise they are threatened they will be fired. It is a life of poverty for workers producing for brands with huge profits and for people who buy clothes in order to simply feel better.

Since when do you question the topic “Made in Europe”? 

Like most western buyers I was aware of the exploitation of workers in Asia. But I started hearing of cases in Romania – pretty horrible cases. And I checked the national media, which was saying that people don’t want to work in these factories because they are lazy.  So I asked myself if this is actually possible. And then I applied for a fellowship and I researched the topic for almost one year and I found out that the problems were actually systemic . I did not go for the most extreme cases. I just wanted to show people the average which  is unacceptable. So this was a warning sign. Made in EU does not prove fair trade or ethical working conditions.

Was there a turning point or a particular case which triggered you to start the research?

I was hearing bits of stories. And this sort of triggered my interest to see how the situation is. I was expecting to find some isolated cases of abuses and, some  good examples, but I could not find one good example in Romania during those months. I found one in Bulgaria, a factory who managed to pay living wages to the workers after negotiating with the brands very hard and after losing their clients for improving the salaries in the factory. On the one hand it shows that it’s possible to have better wages. On the other hand it shows that it is really difficult. And since factories beat each other down for the best price, they continue to pay their workers very poorly. This is a huge issue.

And what did you do next?

Since then I have talked to dozens of workers. Then I picked some case studies and revealed them. I heard the same story over and over again. A lot of people faint because of the heat and hard work during summer. Some are not allowed to exit the factory until the work is done. They are literally locked. People get fired because they try to ask for their rights. But hopefully in time there will be a change. Unfortunately the change is going too slow.

What was the worst thing you have seen in a textile factory?

So I did not get in many factories, because they are not open for journalists. I did see some. Some don’t look that bad. During a visit you do not see the problems. Some get funds and look really good but the problem is how they treat the workers. When I worked at a factory to see how it feels like the worst thing was the heat. It was unbearable during the summer time. You would expect people to faint in that condition. They were not resting, had unbreathable air. I also talked to inspectors who described the work in factories in apartment buildings and the conditions there are dreadful. You can’t imagine. I heard descriptions, but it was no comparison to what I have seen directly.

How long did you work there?

I have worked there for a couple of days just to see how it feels and to make contact with the workers. Eventually, I have told the workers I was a journalist and some told me what happened to them and their colleagues.

How many hours did you work there per day?

The schedule was eight hours per day in two shifts. There was one shift in the morning and one in the afternoon. If you were one minute late, they would cut one hour from your salary. The salary would be 150 euro per month. You can’t live with it. For a full-time job they were encouraged to do a lot more work in order to get a bit more money. This is three years ago now. And the conditions only rarely changed.

What department did you work in?

They assigned me to work in the printing department, because I don’t know how to sew. It was really exhausting. Workers told me “You are lucky you are new, they treat you better in the beginning”. But I saw that the conditions in general weren’t good. Outside the people told me the colours we were printing with were toxic. So they would give you a bottle of milk, which is used under the Romanian legislation when you work in a harmful environment. This is a way of compensating.

What was the worst story a worker told you?

I have heard of workers who had spontaneous abortions,. I had workers telling me that their colleagues died because of the hard work. But those cases are impossible to prove, so I never wrote about it. I found those cases very extreme and I wanted to portray the average worker, who is still working under horrible conditions.

What is your message?

My message is the following: be open, question things and try to understand the way the system works. Think critical in dealing with life. People should be open to knowledge and it is my duty as a journalist to try to understand the realities around us.  I am not telling people what to do, I show the facts and give the people the opportunity to decide for themselves what they do with the knowledge.

What is your personal goal?

Being able to do my job as a journalist, which is increasingly difficult. This is what I am good at, what I love to do. I cannot have expectations to actually change the world, but I am glad to see that people are interested in the topics I write about. I am also interested in discovering the world, being as close as I can to the truth and revealing it – this would be my wish. I am in a privileged position as a journalist and I’d like to contribute to that. To give voices to people who are actually mute with regard to the society.