Zara Can't Seem to Stop Racially Discriminating Against Its Employees and Shoppers

My advice for Zara executives is to get it together and do it fast.
Publish date:
April 13, 2016
fashion, racism, Zara, racial profiling, Racial Discrimination

Another day, another discriminatory incident at Zara. When the chain first came to the U.S., like many women, I was thrilled. I loved Zara's designer looks sold for a fraction of designer prices. I had outgrown Forever 21 and was excited that the creation of an upscale, sophisticated wardrobe was within my reach.

Oh, and the blazers. I love, love, loved a Zara blazer.

Unfortunately, my love has faded as allegations of discrimination against both employees and customers continue to multiply. The latest incident took place in an East End Toronto store. Cree Ballah, an employee, is filing a lawsuit for discrimination after managers asked her to take her braids out of a bun, and then attempted to "fix" her hair outside of the store in a busy mall in full view of other employees and customers.

“They took me outside of the store and they said, 'We're not trying to offend you, but we're going for a clean, professional look with Zara and the hairstyle you have now is not the look for Zara,” Ballah said.

“It was very humiliating, it was unprofessional,” she continued.

“My hair type is also linked to my race, so to me, I felt like it was direct discrimination against my ethnicity in the sense of what comes along with it,” said Ballah, who describes herself as bi-racial. “My hair type is out of my control and I try to control it to the best of my ability, which wasn't up to standard for Zara.” (Interestingly, Zara has no formal policy regarding employees' hairstyles, as long as they look professional.)

If that was the end of the story, then I’d probably be filling my online shopping cart with their new Palm Springs collection right about now. But, last year Zara's former U.S. general counsel filed a $40 million dollar lawsuit against the retail giant, claiming he was discriminated against for being Jewish, American, and gay. During his time at the company (from January 2008 to March 2015), he reported receiving homophobic emails, witnessing anti-Semitic remarks that were made in his presence, and that Spanish employees were assured of more job security and received greater pay raises despite his strong performance reviews and growing company profitability.

Then the Center for Popular Democracy released a survey of New York–based Zara employees, titled “Stitched with Prejudice: Zara USA’s Corporate Culture of Favoritism.” The report found that black employees are more dissatisfied with their hours than white employees, are reviewed more harshly by management, and are less likely to be promoted.

I took note of that report, but also saw that the sample included a very small number of employees. Plus, I had shopped at several Zara stores in Manhattan and never had a problem, but admittedly, ignorance is bliss.

As time marched on, however, more and more stories made headlines and it seemed not even Zara customers were safe from discrimination. In 2015, a Muslim woman was refused entrance to a Paris store because she was wearing a hijab. And the Center for Popular Democracy study also found that black customers are far more likely to be targeted as potential thieves than white customers. "The "Stitched with Prejudice" report describes a practice within Zara of referring to suspected shoplifters as “special orders,” leading to the racial profiling of black shoppers as soon as they enter the store.

In 2014, the retailer received backlash for a children’s shirt that drew comparisons to a Holocaust uniform. And in 2007, the store withdrew handbags from their store that featured swastikas.

As luck would have it, my cognitive dissonance regarding Zara wasn't to last. Last summer, while shopping in a Zara in my hometown of Los Angeles, I bought a mini-skirt that I wasn’t quite sure of and asked a sales associate if I could return it if I changed my mind. She said yes, and added that I didn’t even need my receipt to do so. Well, a week later I found myself in that exact situation.

The skirt was a little too short for my taste, so I attempted to return it (and of course I had lost the receipt). I was informed by the sales associate that the item had gone on sale and I would have to return or exchange it at the sale price. I offered to provide the sales associate (and then her manager) with both my credit card number (so they could look up the transaction), as well as my credit card statement to confirm that I had in fact paid full price for the item.

Admittedly, the interaction may not have been motivated by racial bias. The employees may have been tired, underpaid or having a bad day and that’s why they spoke to me in a way that left me feeling angry and humiliated. However, something didn’t feel right about the experience. And when I combined all of their missteps together I decided that I could no longer be a Zara customer. Thus far, I haven’t spent one dollar at a Zara store in about a year.

My personal experience aside, my advice for Zara executives is to get it together and do it fast. The world is more connected than ever before, and multiple allegations of gender, ethnic and religious intolerance are tipping the scales against you (no matter how cute your spring collection is). If more and more of these stories continue to come to light, I won’t be the only former fan girl voting against what appears to be a disgusting company culture by keeping my credit card firmly in it’s wallet.