It was more than a job to them.

"We were a family" is what many of the Turkish textile workers who helped make clothes for international fashion brands told CBC News this week.

"We felt safe," Bahar Ugur, 26, said. "It was a big deal to work for them."

Ugur and eight of her former co-workers, who were all employees of Bravo Tekstil, are huddled around a cafe table on this chilly November night in Istanbul, under a cloud of cigarette smoke.

The factory, which made garments for apparel giants Zara, Mango and Next, was shuttered suddenly in the summer of 2016. The owner disappeared; 140 staff are owed three months of back wages and severance, and they've been waiting a year and a half for their money.

With the help of activists from the Clean Clothes Campaign, the group grabbed the world's attention earlier this month with what they say was a first: the workers slipped into Zara shops across the city and slid pleas for help into pockets and under collars for consumers to discover.

The notes, in Turkish, read: "I made the item you are going to buy, but I haven't been able to get my money!"

They focused on Zara because they say 75 per cent of the work they did was for that company.

Many shoppers reacted viscerally, and the story went viral. As of Wednesday night, the group's online petition had nearly 293,000 signatures, just shy of the 300,000 they are hoping for. 

'We felt like we won'

Zara's parent company, Inditex, declined CBC News' request for an interview, instead pointing to the statement it released earlier this month, which said that, along with Mango and Next, it was setting up a "hardship fund" for the affected factory workers. 

"We felt like we won," said Ugur, who was a secretary at Bravo Tekstil. But weeks later — no money, more problems. 

The workers say Inditex considers employees like Ugur white-collar workers, and those who were on the factory floor blue-collar. They say that means only the latter — 77 people in total — will be compensated if they reach an agreement. 

INDITEX-ZARA

People walk past a Zara store in central Madrid. (Andrea Comas/Reuters)

The Clean Clothes Campaign's representative in Turkey, Bego Demir, believes the distinction is arbitrary and against Turkish law. 

"They already signed an agreement and said we're accepting our responsibility for all of our supply chain," he said. 

Ugur says she is among the workers owed the least amount of money, but it is still a life-altering sum. 

"Severance for six years, and three months' wages. I'm owed 20,000 lira," she said — about $6,500 Cdn. 

"There are people who couldn't pay their rent, people who had newborns," she said. 

$17 billion industry

The textile industry in Turkey is a major economic engine, bringing in $17 billion US in 2016, according to the Istanbul Textile and Raw Materials Exporters Union. And it goes beyond fast fashion. High-fashion retailers including Hugo Boss have their own factories here, too. 

Demir says that is in large part because high-quality garments can be made and shipped to Europe more quickly than from other manufacturing hubs. And workers are treated much more fairly, he says, compared to countries like Bangladesh.  

Zara Workers Turkey

Turkish textile workers placed these cards in garments at Zara shops across Istanbul. (Clean Clothes Campaign)

Demir estimates there are at least one million registered workers churning out clothing in Turkey and another two million doing it underground. 

Child labour is still a pressing concern, Demir said, but he added that a law brought in by the government two years ago to help refugees work legally has helped. 

"The big issue is [the] living wage issue," Demir said, and that textile workers are not always free to unionize. 

'I would spit in his face'

Like many of her co-workers, Ugur was unable to find work for a long time, but she did get a job after a year; some are still searching. Demir said he knew of one worker in his late forties who'd dyed his hair to appear younger in hopes of getting hired. 

Worker Eyup Demir (no relation) says that for him, the shock took months to subside. Demir, who started working at the age of 15, says he's never been burned by an employer this way in his more than two decades in the textile industry. He worked at Bravo for six years, in shipping, cleaning and quality control. 

'What can I say [to a company] fighting to not give workers what's rightfully theirs?' - Eyup Demir

He earned 1,700 Turkish lira (around $550 Cdn) per month, a little higher than minimum wage. He says he is owed about 18,000 lira (approximately $5,800 Cdn). 

"The great Zara," he said, shaking his head. "What can I say [to a company] fighting to not give workers what's rightfully theirs?" 

And he doesn't spare his former boss, Bravo Tekstil owner Kerem Bravo. 

"I'm angry — it's no lie," Eyup Demir said. "I'm sorry, but I would spit in his face." 

Turkey Textile Workers

Eyup Demir has worked in the textile industry since he was 15 years old and says this is the first time he's been burned by an employer this way. (Turgut Yeter/CBC)

Inditex, too, lays the blame on the factory's owner. 

"Inditex has paid all its contractual obligations to Bravo Tekstil," the company's statement said — meaning it paid for the garments it ordered from the factory — "but the factory's owner has disappeared fraudulently." 

It went on to say the company is working with international labour organization IndustriALL Global to "find a swift solution for all of those impacted." 

Inditex made more than 3 billion euro in profit in 2016. Clearly aware of the concerns about how fast fashion is produced, the Inditex website gives prominence to its motto: "Our fashion is Right to Wear," saying its aim is to create "beautiful, ethical, quality products that are not only right for our customers, but right for the people who work for us, right for communities and right for the environment."

The workers point out that what they are owed represents less than 0.01 per cent of Inditex's earnings for a single quarter