Zara, the fast-fashion retailer that brought you a children’s t-shirt that looks like a concentration camp uniform and a handbag decorated with swastikas, is facing a $40 million discrimination lawsuit. Three employees are alleging nine causes of action: according to Women’s Wear Daily, the lawsuit makes “claims on racial discrimination, in particular anti-Semitism. It is also alleging pay discrimination and retaliation.”
The lawsuit was filed Wednesday by Zara’s former general counsel, Ian Jack Miller, and lists the U.S. country manager, and Zara USA’s director of expansion for North and South American, Moises Costas Rodriguez, as the other defendants. Miller started working at Zara in January 2008 and was fired in March of this year.
Miller is Jewish and alleges the discrimination he experienced was particularly harsh as a result. Though upper management didn’t know about Miller’s faith until he’d been at Zara for five years, they routinely called Jewish landlords and real estate developers with whom they worked “los judios” (Spanish for “the Jews”), whined that it was trying to work with “those people,” and generally mocked them. Once Miller’s religion came to light, he found himself cut out of crucial meetings and email chains; his annual pay raises were cut from over 15 percent to three percent.
Miller alleges that employees are favored if they are “straight, Spanish and Christian.” Spanish employees allegedly enjoyed greater job security and higher pay raises, he claims. He also alleges that he was fired the day after his legal counsel sent a letter to Zara detailing his complaints.
The lawsuits claims are specific, lewd and no doubt embarrassing to many current and former employees. The lawsuit describes a corporate culture where visits to prostitutes are a normal part of business trips and a heterosexual lifestyle is endorsed. Miller says that former Zara USA CEO Moises Costas Rodriguez bragged about the size of his penis and having sexual relations with five female subordinates, including a director of human resources, and that he sent an email to Miller highlighting language that marriage is an institution “sanctified between a man and a woman.” The suit claims that another Zara executive, Francesc Fernandez Claramunt, sent Miller’s partner, Michael Mayberry, a pornographic image of an erect and tattooed penis and that Fernandez had been trying to persuade Miller to get such a tattoo.
It wasn’t just Miller who was the alleged target of Zara’s prejudice: emails that regularly circulated among senior management reportedly contained pictures of Michelle and Barack Obama, the former serving fried chicken, the latter on an Aunt Jemima box shining shoes and in a Ku Klux Klan hood holding a Confederate flag.
In response to the lawsuit, a Zara representative told WWD, “We do not tolerate any behavior that is discriminatory or disrespectful, but value each individual’s contributions to our dynamic organization.”
Revelations like this are always a bit shocking, not because it’s so stunning that someone could still harbor such antiquated prejudices in a modern time, but really that someone could be stupid enough to document them in a work email. As no one at Zara would be encouraged to say, dayenu.
And yet, for the consumer paying attention to Zara’s practices — and really, the practices of all these fast fashion retailers — there is no real reason to be taken aback by this news. This is a store that not only has stocked its shelves with easily identifiable signifiers of the Holocaust (twice!) but has also shilled blackface necklaces.
So Zara’s corporate culture shouldn’t be all that shocking, just like there is nothing particularly jaw-dropping about Abercrombie & Fitch, purveyor of all things white, blonde and preppy, being found guilty of religious discrimination against a potential employee who wore a hijab at her job interview; just like there is nothing especially mind-blowing about Urban Outfitters, which navigates cultural landmines with all the grace of a drunk hipster, selling a “Vintage Kent State Sweatshirt” that appears to be splattered with blood. We’ve reached a point where shopping at any of these places is, at best, a passive acceptance of the values they openly, eagerly uphold.
Still, would-be responsible shoppers are in a bind: it is practically impossible to know that you’re buying clothing that is not only inoffensive on its face (can’t really say enough times how easy it is to make sure Nazi regalia isn’t all over your fine fake-leather goods) but ethical in its supply chain. Stores like Forever 21, H&M; and Topshop keep prices low by exploiting and endangering the lives of impoverished people, mostly women, in developing countries. Even Patagonia, probably the most high-profile advocate in the retail space for fair labor practices, can’t weed human trafficking out of its factories.
One more thing to consider: Zara founder Armancio Ortega is the second-richest man on Earth. He has a net worth of $71.5 billion.