Spain: "Inditex has enough accumulated profits to survive in this crisis!" – Interview with Inditex worker

An Interview with Javier Paraíso, Spokesperson for the CGT trade union branch at Inditex–Plataforma Europa (Zaragoza),where he answers our questions about the situation of the workers at Inditex and about the impact of the coronavirus crisis on the company's business.

In light of the government decree to suspend “non-essential” activity, which does allow the full, partial or discretionary operation of almost all companies that worked before it, do you not think that, in an organized way, CGT and other unions should appeal to the rest of unions and union branches to promote a general stoppage of all non-essential companies?

Well Miguel, I cannot speak on behalf of my union in that I do not know the general position on the matter and I am not the spokesperson that carries that burden.

What I could say is that the CGT has argued that, in such an exceptional situation, the economic order and its profits should be relegated in favour of people's health, and in light of the facts, the decree continues to force us to work by force majeure and does not look after the workforce. Personally, I think that the current situation is dire and requires great sacrifices, but if we look towards a sustainable model of life, the greatest sacrifice should be at the expense of capital in favour of people. I believe that the government could have acted with greater boldness and courage.

With this in mind, I will answer from my personal opinion.

A general stoppage is a decision that must be put on the table, and we should rise to the occasion. The example we have had in the workers of the factories of northern Italy (Piedmont, Lombardy, Emilia Romagna and Veneto) in the areas most affected by the outbreak in a situation analogous to what has just happened here, where the workers have chosen to call a strike as a sign of rejection of the Italian government's emergency measures and their decision to keep factories open while shops and commercial businesses are closed.

The effort to maintain industrial activity as normal threatens public health, so our commitment should be to increase the pressure and to fight by all possible means for the stoppage of all economic activity that is not essential in the current emergency situation.

Taking into account that the state of emergency leaves the workers' right to strike unchanged: yes, it would have to be seriously considered, and we should look for allies to this approach towards truly non-essential companies, assessing the current situation given that non-essential industries have the legal obligation to carry out minimum essential activity with their activity on the weekend or an ordinary holiday as a reference.

The line would be that of a common approach in line with the recently called strategy of the two big Basque nationalist unions, ELA and LAB, together with other Basque trade unions. We know that of CCOO and UGT obviously would not endorse it.

What we would all agree upon, including the unions of the parties in power, is that all possible health guarantees for workers must prevail, however the problem is that zero risk does not fit into this.

To continue defending economic activity at all costs is, at the preventive level, very limited in that it does not eliminate the risk, at least in a short and defined space in time, minimizing exposure as little as possible.

But can all risk be eliminated? Yes, when all workers stay at home except for truly essential workers. That is the maximum level of preventative measures.

I agree that we should act under strict health criteria away from political focus, but I read with concern that the health technicians themselves denounce how this past Sunday health personnel are being exposed and unprotected following the current premises of the procedure of action for the Occupational Risk Prevention Services against exposure to SARS-CoV-2.

In addition, members of the scientific community in a joint statement warned a week ago that total confinement was essential to avoid the collapse of the healthcare system due to the risk of saturation (i.e. ICU admission capacity) being very high. What more do you want?

Given this, my question is: What is the price of a life? Are we resigned to accept collateral damage in order to avoid an economic setback that will lead to a recession?

Exactly what is the employment situation now at Inditex?

The Inditex group was bound by the Prime Minister’s announcement of a state of emergency, which took effect on Saturday March 14, forcing the transnational company to close 1580 stores. Changing rooms had been closed preemptively at the time, but it should be noted that the employers themselves, the National Association of Textile, Accessories and Leather Trade (Acotex) already considered it "irresponsible" to keep stores open, given the current situation, on the 13 of March.

The same afternoon, after the announcement of the decree that forced the closure of all commercial establishments, Inditex was carrying out the recommendations of public bodies, launching teleworking for employees of its central services in order to continue operating normally and comply with the guidelines of the procedure of action against the exposure of the Coronavirus of March 5.

inditex logo fair useInditex has no intention of carrying out a risk assessment in its workplaces / Image: fair use

Meanwhile, our Logistics and Manufacturing network continued to operate with apparent normality. In the end, if we have had to reduce working time in warehouses, it has not been exclusively due to the preventive attitude by the employers, but because our global activity has suffered from top to bottom and we have had to adapt to existing orders levels, maintaining minimal services.

Until the government's recent announcement to close all non-essential activity, we have survived mainly due to online activity and business from markets that are recovering, such as China (which is 8% of the company’s business) or Russia, among others, highlighting the company’s ubiquitous global presence operating in 106 markets, which allows them to weather the storm better than many small and medium-sized companies.

As for the measures to reduce exposure, such as reducing working hours by half, a recommendation from the Ministry of Health, although it was presented as a preventive measure. For example, our centre in Zaragoza, where the shifts, some being agreed verbally (It is common at Inditex to refrain from reporting any information in a written manner, greatly reducing transparency) were changed at very short notice on the company’s whim, and resulted in increased working time to focus on the ‘essentials’, which are the needs of getting orders out.

Mainly, we are seeing workplaces where we have continued to work despite risk of contagion, without complying, in our judgment, with the minimum aspects set by the Ministry of Health. These minimum aspects include social distancing of two meters, ensuring proper cleaning of surfaces and spaces, disinfecting common areas and common workspaces, and avoiding sharing objects between workers. All of this is creating a state of total insecurity.

Given this, we have demanded time and time again that the company provides masks and gloves for workers, as an essential condition to be able to work safely, yet the company has not listened to us. It seems paradoxical, with 1.4 million masks landing in Zaragoza, that Inditex has not given this equipment to its workers to guarantee their safety, despite smaller companies with much less resources doing so.

In addition to that, the company has imposed an action protocol (that should have been agreed upon with the unions) in all logistics centres in a unilateral way and without any intention on the part of the company to carry out a risk assessment of the different jobs and workplaces. That is not a responsible attitude. We had been demanding an alternative protocol for ten days and only on March 24 did the company impose its own protocol "to guarantee daily production." The crux of the matter is that in the eyes of Inditex production must not stop, and the health of the workers is secondary to this production..

You have reported that several colleagues have fallen ill with COVID–19. 

We know that at the moment, in the most affected areas such as Madrid and Guadalajara (at the Meco platform and in Cabanillas) there are people who have tested positive.

Comrades have also reported to me that there was a subcontractor who tested positive, which was not reported by form at the time.

In general, the procedures put in place by the Ministry of Health to avoid the collapse of the health system - ordering that the coronavirus test should not be done on people who had mild symptoms compatible with the disease that causes COVID-19, but only of those who had serious symptoms, has prevented workplaces from controlling the contagion between all the personnel.

Now, Official figures and the reality of the situation are two different things. The absence of tests diagnosed through PCR, makes us suspect that there are many more positives that are not counted in the statistics.

In workplaces, the strategy implemented by the government against COVID-19 is not implemented, as there is no way to confine the virus. We advocate the closure of all non-essential businesses. If this is not done, it is impossible to defend against contagion, no matter how many security measures and protocols are put in place. In many cases protocols are introduced too late and as a result work very poorly, if they work at all. The main reason they do not work is because the basic requirement of the company is: "security: yes, but it must adapt to production", and not the other way around.

In addition, we believe that, in the current Inditex protocol, faced with the first official case of COVID-19 in our workplace in Zaragoza, the precautionary criterion has failed, and has not guaranteed absolute safety for all workers. In our judgement, this is a result of an unclear position regarding what is defined as "close contact", which has caused us some uneasiness.

The government today decreed that "it extended the confinement to workers of non-essential activities", but still exempting some companies from the stoppage, including those that are dedicated to the production "of work clothes or sanitary products”. That comes just after Inditex announced that it was going to produce hospital gowns. Don't you find it shocking? Do the warehouses that are sending clothes to China count among these? 

In our opinion, and in the absence of the wording that the council of ministers will produce, according to the draft that was seen on television on the 27th, only three sectors of activity would remain running. Among these three sectors was work clothing and textiles, but, importantly, only in cases where production is exclusively for the protection of health workers.

Shocking? Not really, as Inditex has already announced in a way their predisposition to manufacture necessary textile material for hospitals.

We understand that the logistics centres would not be within the purpose that the government intends, no matter what the interpretation. The activity of our centres according to the CNAE 5210 is deposit and storage, which is outside the sphere of industrial activities declared as essential services.

However, if we reorganised to use our logistical potential in a workplace like ours to send out the much needed health care material at this time, if the company is able to provide us with the masks that we have requested, in addition to gloves and measures of sufficient security, it would be an honour to work for a common good... but that is science fiction today.

On the question of trade unions, the landscape is changing at Inditex. UGT and, above all, CCOO had a very large majority, which they are now losing. In Madrid, in different stores, the CGT has risen quite a bit in the last year: in Pull & Bear, Zara and other companies.

Yes, in those stores specifically and in a very important place like Madrid, the CGT comrades at Pull & Bear recently won the entire representation, winning 13 shop stewards from CCOO and 4 from UGT. That was the icing on the cake, just four months after winning the union elections in Zara and Lefties with 11 of the 25 representatives, highlighting the decline of CCOO from 10 to 6 and UGT from 7 to 2, after a magnificent job led by the union, represented by comrades Aníbal Maestro and Soledad Arangunde. I want to highlight their great work and I think that more good news is coming, because I think it is becoming evident that what they are struggling for is to equalize the working conditions of the different brands, to a higher level. 

cgt logo MamfeThe CGT is gaining support as a result of the crisis / Image: Mamfe

We are also growing in logistics warehouses. The Cabanillas (Guadalajara) platform of Pull & Bear stands out. There, the CGT has recently overturned the previous situation, obtaining an overwhelming majority with eight shop stewards by taking two from CCOO and one from FETICO, leaving CCOO with four delegates and UGT with none. In the logistics centre of the Stradivarius brand, in Sallent (Barcelona), we have also grown. 

And now we are waiting on both Cabanillas of the Zara Home platform and in our centre in Zaragoza, where we are the largest union together with UGT, to proceed to union elections where we hope to continue consolidating our strength.

The company's “divide and conquer” strategy, which was enabled by the union leadership that existed before, who said that it was “impossible” to fight these differences, is losing. Change is unstoppable and the company is fully aware of this, since it sees the dominance of the government parties’ affiliated unions, especially the CCOO, in jeopardy. Also the IGC in Galicia, ELA in the Basque Country, as well as MIT in Zaragoza, with whom we have a cordial and close relationship, have risen quite a bit.

In each warehouse there are different working conditions. Even in each province there are different conditions for each brand, starting at the store level.

Indeed. In Zaragoza there are 1,800 workers on an annual average wage, although sometimes with seasonal support we exceed 2,000 workers. There are 10 other logistics centres throughout Spain guaranteeing the production of its 8 brands such as Arteixo and Narón in A Coruña, Cabanillas del Campo in Guadalajara, Meco in Madrid, Palafolls, Sallent and Tordera in Barcelona, Onzonilla in León and Elche. Each with different working conditions.

We have been demanding a common labor framework, to avoid discrimination, for a while. Zara Logistics workers in Galicia can collect 10,000 euros more than in Zaragoza, and these 5,000 more than their colleagues in Barcelona. We need to combat this. We aspire to build an environment of labour relations that complies with the principle and fundamental right of "equal work, equal pay". That is how we grow, by fighting inequality.

I have to point out the work of my friend Professor Jesús de Val Arnal (TEU Professor of Labour Law and Social Security at the University of Zaragoza) who carried out very interesting work in a paper on the legal nature of Inditex, where he compares it to chaos theory, as the only explanation for the collective bargaining structure of the company’s logistics platforms.

The Inditex group, depending on the territorial scope of application of the agreement, imposes different salary conditions for the same work, reaching agreements in each warehouse with different salaries within the so-called irregular collective bargaining (a.k.a. extra-statutory).

We have one of the best examples of this in Cabanillas del Campo (Guadalajara) where two Inditex warehouses are located: Zara-home logistics SA and Plataforma Cabanillas SA.  Within the same premises, almost wall to wall, a worker earns €2,500 more than another!

It is clear that in logistics, due to the strength of the collective and due to the number of comrades present in the warehouses, it has been easier to struggle for better working conditions. But there are still discriminations that remain. For example, there are bonuses at the production level that the managers receive and the operators do not, despite the fact we are all indispensable in bringing "responsible fashion" products to our stores...

Now, it is in locations where staff salary is much lower that the company's policy of isolating and separating workers store by store and province by province has been more successful. In addition, in each province the company accepts the textile trade wage agreement, which is ultimately set at a minimum, in order to pay less.

The company seeks a large turnover of workers, which it does not make permanent employees, and from there it makes very sizable profits. The usual thing in stores is to have a part-time contract maintaining a high eventuality rate.

The precariousness in the company is not only in the economic side, but also in labour. What type of employment does the company generate? In logistics, most of the contracts are indefinite, but a lot was fought for them to be so. However the majority of Inditex workers are in stores, where employment is precarious, where most workers are women, and where there is a lot of turnover in contracts.

Such wage differences do not have any reasonable justification, breaking with the principle of equal pay for equal work, which is included, compulsorily for compliance in article 14 of the Constitution and in article 28 of our Workers Statute.

Inditex is the acronym for "Textile Industry", however, the success of the company's history has been towards offshoring and international outsourcing in the context of globalization, reducing its industrial base in Spain, and expanding its contracts in the poorest countries where most of the value is created. The success in Spain, Europe, and worldwide, was through dedicating itself to the textile retail trade, with products which have extracted strong capital gains in the poorest countries.

The company has been giving a lot of publicity to the fact that when it applies the temporary employment regulation scheme (ERTE), starting in April, it would complement the 70% sick pay that the government would pay with the remaining 30%, in order to pay 100% of the salary...

In their favour, it must be said that we positively value the latest decision, that the Inditex Group would assume with its financial resources the entire cost of temporary suspensions for all personnel in Spain.

Likewise, it also seems that ERTE will not be applied to Logistics, Factories and Central Services personnel, which represent around 40% of workers in Spain.

Now, we believe that some marketing came into play here. First came the famous announcement to put our logistics capacity at the service of the Government to bring, especially from China, medical supplies such as textiles; and then the announcement of the donation of 1.5 million masks.

What they later said is that they were evaluating applying an ERTE, as they had transmitted it to all the company committees of their logistics centres. We believe that Inditex initially wanted to implement the ERTE in the least expensive way, but it was social pressure that forced them to postpone it. Only then it was announced that it would cover the remaining 30% of the salary to reach 100% of the salary. This was mitigating a marketed image all along, because even at the start they were saying they would not pay our complementary employment wages. That's when the "social pressure" came in and the company backtracked due to the possible scandal generated by taking advantage of the conditions that the state grants when assuming workers' wages. So, yes, then and only then, they assured us that they would assume that 30% complement to the state pay.

Finally, in the logistics centres, factories as central services that bring together around 20,000 workers out of the 48,000 in Spain, it seems that they will not run the ERTE in April, promising to pay 100% of the salary despite working fewer hours, due to the preventively adapted shifts.

Of course, comparing Inditex with other companies, they have more than enough financial muscle to maintain the aforementioned conditions. As a worker and as a human being, I am concerned about the many small and medium-sized companies, as well as the self-employed; but Inditex has accumulated profits to survive!

CCOO was the majority union and in recent years you, the IGC, ELA or other more militant unions have grown a lot. Why has this happened?

It is a statement of the facts. Workers are losing confidence in CCOO for their actions, summarized in the peaceful coexistence and non-aggression pact with Inditex management. They are becoming a beautiful corporatist photograph held with interest by the Group to which it grants a Corsican patent regarding information about employees' conditions.

They have been defending a framework of inequality between centres for many years in line with what Inditex has wanted instead of defending a single framework for everyone.

We in the other unions do not define ourselves as representatives, but as spokespersons, the transmission belt of the workers. The CGT is a militant union while CCOO on the contrary has become in many cases a union of concertation, class collaboration, and of "social peace" typical of other unions that are reviled as being pro-company like FETICO.

We see an example of this behaviour in the Coronavirus crisis, as they have defended the interests of employers and the IBEX-35. They have positioned themselves in their own protocols to defend "the production of the company" instead of positioning themselves as other unions have,  calling for the total closure of non-essential activities, just as the CGT has defended, putting people's health first before capital.