BUSINESS
07/31/2014 03:36 pm ET | Updated Jul 31, 2014

'Fed Up' Zara Workers Battle For More Hours

Retail Action Project

Fast-fashion retailer Zara is the latest company to find itself under fire from workers who say they're not making enough money and need more hours.

A 23-year-old Zara sales associate has been pressuring the company to give part-time workers more hours and more stable schedules. Sharlene Santos, who works in a Zara in Manhattan, recently posted a open letter and petition on Coworker.org, which so far has accumulated more than 800 signatures. She's backed by the Retail Action Project, an initiative of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

"I was fed up," Santos said in an interview with The Huffington Post on Tuesday. "They don't value our work. They don't value what we are."

Zara did not respond to requests for comment from HuffPost.

Zara is no stranger to worker protests. Last year the company's home country of Spain, a union successfully forced Zara to close its stores on Saturday afternoons during the summer, calling it a "fundamental right" for workers in the industry, according to a report from ThinkSpain.

Workers in the United States are fighting for far more "basic" fundamental rights. Protests over working conditions and wages have heated up at McDonald's and other fast food outlets this year.

Santos said she was hired at Zara two years ago, making $9.50 an hour and working roughly 35 hours a week. A raise to $10.50 an hour helped a bit. She was able to help pay her tuition at Bronx Community College and help out her parents at home in their Manhattan apartment, she said.

Then, after last holiday season, Santos and the other part-time workers at her store were told their hours would be cut to less than 25 a week, she said. She's been working between 16 and 24 hours per week ever since.

"We are forced to choose between bills, rent and food," Santos wrote in the open letter, which is addressed to Zara USA Managing Director Dilip Patel. The letter also calls for more advancement opportunities for minority workers in stores.

Santos enlisted the help of the Retail Action Project, a union-backed entity that has in recent years helped stage worker protests at major retailers like Juicy Couture, Abercrombie & Fitch and Best Buy.

"At Zara and many other retailers, workers are struggling with a culture of disrespect, manifested in insufficient hours and a lack of advancement opportunities along with fluctuating schedules," Retail Action Project director Sasha Hammad said in a statement to HuffPost. "By addressing the concerns of their workers, Zara would set an example for major retailers in the U.S."

Inditex, which owns Zara and a mix of other fashion brands, is the largest clothing retailer in the world by revenue, with a workforce of more than 128,000 employees worldwide. In fiscal year 2013, the company raked in nearly $21 billion in sales and made $3 billion in profits. Zara, its biggest brand, is a fast-fashion retailer that adapts styles from fashion show catwalks and brings them to store shelves in a matter of weeks.

Melody Pabon, a 25-year-old mother who works at Santos' store, said she decided to speak out after her hours were cut too. She hopes that some good will come of this, beyond her own situation at Zara.

"Something needs to happen," Pabon told HuffPost. "I'm pretty sure we're not the only ones going through these issues."

The median pay for one of the 4.7 million retail workers in the U.S. is $21,410 per year or $10.29 an hour, according to 2012 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In recent years, a war over low wages has raged at major stores like discount giant Walmart, as workers fight for more hours and better pay.

Santos said workers at four other Zara stores in New York have expressed their support for her campaign. Since she began speaking out, she's received a 50-cent raise, from $10.50 to $11, she said.

On Tuesday, Santos and other workers rallied outside her Zara store while Patel, the Zara managing director, was inside. Janna Pea, a spokeswoman with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said the goal of the event was for Santos and her coworkers to deliver a letter to Patel.

According to Pea, Patel came outside to listen while Santos spoke, but the group wasn't able to give him their letter as planned.

"He didn't want to speak to me," said Santos.

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