Bias Suit Paints Blistering Picture of Zara

     MANHATTAN (CN) – Zara’s past scandals for clothing designs perceived as having Nazi imagery and racist slogans reflect a deeper corporate culture of bias, the company’s former lawyer claims in a $40 million lawsuit.
     Ian Jack Miller, who represented Zara for seven years as in-house counsel, accuses Zara USA and two of its executives of religious and sexual discrimination firsthand in an alarming 30-page complaint filed Wednesday in Manhattan Supreme Court.
     Zara’s predominantly Spanish, straight and Christian executives – including an ex-CEO – mocked real estate developers as “los judios” (“the Jews”), exchanged racist emails of President Barack Obama wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood, bragged about their sexual prowess, and subjected staff to sexist and homophobic messages, Miller claims.
     The lawsuit begins with a retelling of Zara’s past scandals involving what some customers described as Nazi and racist imagery.
     “Zara cultivates a worldly and cosmopolitan image, but the company is notorious for selling products featuring racist and anti-Semitic images and messages, including handbags depicting swastikas, children’s pajamas resembling concentration camp uniforms (a product that, after an international outcry, the company said would be ‘exterminated’), necklaces containing figurines in black face, and a T-shirt proclaiming that ‘White Is the New Black,'” the complaint states. [Parentheses in original.]
     In August 2014, Zara executives described the resemblance between the yellow-star pajamas and concentration camp uniforms as accidental. The clothing had been meant to look like a sheriff’s outfit, executives insisted at the time.
     Seven years earlier, Zara withdrew handbags that featured swastikas, but not before noting that the symbol is considered sacred in Hindu and Buddhist iconography.
     Rejecting these episodes as gaffes, Miller instead casts them as reflections of the fashion designer’s corporate climate of racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia.
     “While customers have glimpsed only sporadic flashes of the company’s hostility to outsiders, Zara’s employees see a more complete and disturbing picture,” the complaint states.
     Zara favors employees who – like the company’s founder and majority shareholder Amancio Ortega Goana – “are straight, Spanish, and Christian,” Miller claims
     “For example, senior executives at Zara openly used racial slurs and exchanged racist emails, including emails portraying Michelle Obama serving fried chicken and emails depicting Barack Obama in a Ku Klux Klan hood, with a Confederate flag, on a Cream of Wheat box, on an Aunt Jemima box, and shining shoes,” the complaint states.
     Miller, who is Jewish, gay and a U.S. citizen, claims that he experienced discrimination firsthand as the company’s general counsel between 2008 and 2015.
     “Supervisors and colleagues sent Mr. Miller homophobic emails, made anti-Semitic remarks in his presence, and boasted that Spanish employees enjoyed more job security than employees of other nationalities,” the complaint says. “Upon information and belief, Zara also gave Mr. Miller lower raises than employees who did not share his protected characteristics, even though Mr. Miller was a strong performer, the company’s revenues were growing, and other Zara employees who fit the company’s preferred profile received higher raises. The overriding message of these actions and communications was that Mr. Miller was an outsider who was unwelcome at Zara.”
     In May 2013, Miller says that his treatment got worse after Zara’s senior executive learned about his Jewish heritage and he advised the company about its compliance with New York Labor Law.
     “The campaign of discrimination culminated in the company’s unlawful termination of Mr. Miller in March 2015 shortly after Mr. Miller’s counsel wrote to the company and raised concerns about unlawful discrimination and retaliation,” the complaint says. “Inditex Group’s highest-ranking legal officer repeatedly admitted to Mr. Miller that the company’s treatment of him was ‘unfair.'”
     Zara’s corporate owner Inditex has been called the largest fashion retailer in the world.
     “Several of the individuals who were primarily responsible for discriminating against or harassing Mr. Miller were installed personally by the company’s founder, Amancio Ortega, and immunized from punishment by virtue of their relationship with Mr. Ortega,” the complaint says. “For example, defendant Dilip Patel, who is Zara’s current country manager for the United States and who responsible for much of the hostile work environment, pay discrimination, retaliation, and unlawful termination that Mr. Miller experienced, is a friend of Mr. Ortega and installed by Mr. Ortega personally in 2013. Further, Ramon Renon Tunez, who is Zara’s chief executive officer and who disparaged Jews in Mr. Miller’s presence, is a close personal friend and longtime adviser to Mr. Ortega.”
     Ortega and Tunez are not named as defendants.
     Describing himself as a “strong performer,” Miller says that his hard work led to Zara’s “unprecedented” real estate acquisitions that “achieved significant media attention.”
     “In January 2015, less than two months before the company’s discriminatory and retaliatory termination, Mr. Miller handled the $300 million purchase of Zara’s new flagship store located at 503 Broadway in New York City,” the complaint states.
     Miller claims he was repaid with a “hostile working environment” singling him out for his ethnic and sexual orientation.
     Zara USA’s former CEO Moises Costas Rodriguez, who is named as a defendant, sent Miller an email highlighting language that marriage is an institution “sanctified between a man and a woman,” the complaint states.
     Miller says he received an email from Costas about a videogame’s “gay sex scene,” another with a picture of a shirtless man, and a news article about gay designer Isaac Mizrahi’s marriage with instructions to “put a ring on it.”
     “In his in-person interactions with Mr. Miller, defendant Costas aggressively promoted heterosexuality as the company’s preferred sexual orientation, signaling Mr. Miller’s status outsider at Zara,” the complaint states. “Defendant Costas bragged to Mr. Miller that he had sexual relations with at least five different female subordinates, including a director of human resources. Defendant Costas also frequently bragged to Mr. Miller about the size of his penis.”
     Country manager Patel “spoke with senior executives about prostitutes, openly criticized transgender individuals, and demeaned gender non-conformism,” the lawsuit claims. “For example, at a business dinner in Las Vegas with other senior executives in May 2014, Defendant Patel ridiculed a store manager in London for having had sex with transsexuals on a trip to Bangkok, Thailand.”
     While Patel and Costas are the only two executives named as defendants, they are not the only ones Miller accuses of inappropriate conduct.
     Francesc Fernandez Claramunt, described as one of Zara’s “most senior employees,” allegedly “used his official Zara email account to send a graphic pornographic image of an erect and tattooed penis to Mr. Miller’s partner, Michael Mayberry,” the complaint states. “Mr. Fernandez stated to Mr. Mayberry that Mr. Fernandez had been ‘trying to convince’ Mr. Miller to get such a tattoo.”
     Miller claims that Zara gave him smaller pay raises than non-Jewish employees, fired him because of bias, and left him with “severe emotional distress and severe reputational harm.”
     “Zara’s termination of Mr. Miller has embarrassed him and tarnished his well-earned reputation, including among the numerous colleagues in the legal community who have expressed shock and disbelief about his separation from Zara,” the complaint states.
     Miller demands punitive damages for nine counts related to discrimination, retaliation and human rights violations.
     He is represented by Alexander Harwin of the Manhattan-based firm Sanford Heisler Kimpel, LLP.
     In a statement, Zara touted its diversity by noting it has over 140,000 employees in 88 countries.
     “The allegations contained in a plaintiff’s press release today are shocking, and – although we have not yet seen a copy of the lawsuit – we will respond strongly and vigorously to these allegations in the court,” the company said, adding, “We do not tolerate any behavior that is discriminatory or disrespectful, but value each individual’s contributions to our dynamic organization.”

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