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Claims of Racism at Zara Portray the Retail Industry at Its Worst

Amy Traub

The retail industry is one the largest sources of new jobs in the US economy, employing 15 million Americans and accounting for 1 out of every 6 private sector jobs added to the economy last year. Yet as my colleague Catherine Ruetschlin and NAACP’s Dedrick Asante-Muhammad found in a study published earlier this month, common retail practices perpetuate racial inequality, fostering occupational segregation, low pay, unstable schedules, and involuntary part-time work that disproportionately harm people of color in the retail workforce.

This week a new report casts a spotlight on employment discrimination at a particular retailer: Zara, a fairly new clothing chain in the United States which nevertheless is part of the world’s largest fashion retail company. Based on interviews of 251 Zara employees in New York City, researchers at the Center for Popular Democracy uncovered troubling pattern of concerns about racial discrimination. They find that Black employees are far more likely than other workers to be assigned work hours they find unsatisfactory and that darker skinned employees report they are least likely to be promoted. The report documents a widespread perception of managerial favoritism, with employees of color being treated more harshly and offered less leeway when requesting a sick day or coming in to work late. Darker skinned workers are disproportionately employed in lower-prestige positions in the back of the store. The company rejects the findings, asserting that it does “not tolerate discrimination of any form.”

Yet accusations of racism on the sales floor are a counterpoint to a recent lawsuit alleging discrimination within Zara’s corporate structure, including claims that senior executives at Zara regularly used racial slurs and exchanged racist emails while discriminating against a corporate attorney who was Jewish and gay. The company has also faced scrutiny for selling racially and ethnically offensive clothing and accessories.

According the new report, Zara employees have also witnessed racial profiling of customers, with Black shoppers far more likely to be targeted as potential thieves than white customers. Here too, the allegations fit into a deplorable pattern within the retail industry: last year, major New York retailers Macy’s and Barney’s entered into settlements with the office of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to settle allegations of racial profiling and false detentions and agreeing to take concrete steps to prevent discrimination against shoppers of color.

But while lawsuits and enforcement actions can make a difference, Zara and other retailers must not wait for legal action to remedy conditions that disadvantage workers and shoppers of color. The NAACP/Demos report highlights how offering livable wages and improving employee schedules would reduce racial disparities even as low-paid employees of all races and ethnicities see benefits. And the Center for Popular Democracy report suggests that Zara allow its New York workers “to choose to represent themselves in grievances through real bargaining agents, such as labor unions, without interference.” By directly empowering employees to push for fair treatment, a union could make the most enduring change of all.