News / Africa

The Cost of No Sweatshops: S. Africa Struggles Not to Be Bangladesh

People work on machines at a clothing factory at an industrial town of Newcastle, 260 km (162 miles) southeast of Johannesburg, May 8, 2013.
People work on machines at a clothing factory at an industrial town of Newcastle, 260 km (162 miles) southeast of Johannesburg, May 8, 2013.
Reuters
It's not luxurious, but Goldfinch Garments, the Chinese-owned South African factory where Sindisizwe Zwane works nine hours a day, is far from a sweatshop: the ventilation is decent, the lighting is good and basic safety measures are in place.
 
South Africa says its garment industry is better regulated and workers are better paid than in ultra low-cost Asian producers like Bangladesh, where the collapse of a factory killed more than 1,100 people last month.
 
The ruling African National Congress (ANC) government, with close links to labor unions, wants to go further by enforcing a wage agreement that would guarantee Zwane and her co-workers a raise.
 
Workers work on machines at a clothing factory at an industrial town of Newcastle, 260 km (162 miles) southeast of Johannesburg, May 8, 2013.Workers work on machines at a clothing factory at an industrial town of Newcastle, 260 km (162 miles) southeast of Johannesburg, May 8, 2013.
x
Workers work on machines at a clothing factory at an industrial town of Newcastle, 260 km (162 miles) southeast of Johannesburg, May 8, 2013.
Workers work on machines at a clothing factory at an industrial town of Newcastle, 260 km (162 miles) southeast of Johannesburg, May 8, 2013.
But the garment industry has already lost three-quarters of its jobs in the past decade as cheaper imports have flooded the local market. Zwane, 28 and one of only two wage earners in a family of 14 people, fears that efforts to win her a raise could cost her livelihood.
 
“Of course I want more. I want a whole loaf of bread instead of the half I am getting. But half a loaf is better than nothing,” said Zwane. “If I lose the job, we lose everything.”
 
Zwane is one of about 250 workers at Goldfinch, one of a cluster of clothing factories in the hardscrabble industrial town of Newcastle, 260 km (160 miles) southeast of Johannesburg.
 
Goldfinch is spartan but appears safe and clean. The factory has rows of sewing machines where a workforce of mostly women spend hours stitching together clothes. Workers often bundle up on colder days and some cover their faces with cloth to protect them from dust.
 
Zwane can earn as much as about $220 per month, with her income depending on how many orders come in.
 
The government-mandated minimum would guarantee her at least $238 a month regardless of how many orders the factory received. That compares with monthly minimums as low as $38.50 in Bangladesh or $80 in Cambodia.
 
The government argues that if industry is allowed to skirt centrally negotiated minimum wage rules, millions of black workers will become locked into a lifetime of cheap labor little different to apartheid.
 
Uncompetitive
 
Nearly two decades after the end of white rule, Africa's biggest economy still has millions of unskilled workers, nearly 40 percent of its population living on less than $5 a day and half of adults out of work.
 
Employers blame an uncompetitive, low-skill, high-wage economy with restrictive labor laws for keeping unemployment high. Since 2000, real after-inflation wages in South Africa have risen 53 percent, while productivity fell by 41 percent.
 
A woman works at a clothing factory at the industrial town of Newcastle, 260 km (162 miles) southeast of Johannesburg, May 8, 2013.A woman works at a clothing factory at the industrial town of Newcastle, 260 km (162 miles) southeast of Johannesburg, May 8, 2013.
x
A woman works at a clothing factory at the industrial town of Newcastle, 260 km (162 miles) southeast of Johannesburg, May 8, 2013.
A woman works at a clothing factory at the industrial town of Newcastle, 260 km (162 miles) southeast of Johannesburg, May 8, 2013.
Labor laws place a heavy emphasis on collective bargaining and allow the Labor Ministry to mediate between unions and industry in a “Bargaining Council” to set minimum wages for specific sectors, which apply across an entire industry.
 
Small and medium-sized companies like the Newcastle textile firms complain that they are excluded from the negotiations and compelled to adopt wages agreed to by large, well-funded firms and big unions with political ties to the ruling ANC.
 
“The Bargaining Council system will ruin South Africa. The wages are not linked to production,” said Alex Liu, a garment maker who has been in South Africa for nearly 20 years and heads the Newcastle Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
 
Newcastle has fared better than many parts of the country, losing only half its clothing jobs in the past decade, largely because its factories pay 10 to 50 percent below the Bargaining Council minimum wage, drawing the ire of government and unions.
 
“It undermines job security in law-abiding companies,” said Andre Kriel, general secretary of SACTWU textile union.
 
Liu, along with other garment makers who were not a part of the talks, have taken the Labor Ministry, a major union and the Bargaining Council to court, saying the wages forced upon them are driving factories out of business.
 
The government says it wants to keep plants running: “It is not the intention of the Bargaining Councils or the department to 'close down' factories,” said Ian Macun, head of collective bargaining at the Labor Ministry.
 
“On the other hand employers are obliged to comply with applicable legislation.”
 
Loane Sharp, a labor expert at employment firm Adcorp, said the system does seem to benefit bigger companies, who can use the collective bargaining principle to hurt smaller competitors.
 
“In principle, those in the Bargaining Council are supposed to work in the public interest. But in practical terms, the participants gang up on small and medium-sized enterprises by agreeing to wages that are unrealistic,” said Sharp.
 
South African textile wages are not only far higher than in parts of Asia, they are also about double those in many other African states. As South African factories have closed, new ones have opened in Lesotho, Swaziland, Kenya and Mauritius.
 
“Our biggest competition is not Asia or Bangladesh. It is neighboring Lesotho and Swaziland,” Liu said.
 
Liu's Wincool factory has tried to defuse the government opposition by introducing a profit-sharing co-op system. However, even Wincool was shrunk from 300 full-time jobs to 100.
 
“It's better for a lot of people to have a little than nothing at all,” said Joseph Kunene, a co-op member at the factory. “But most people in Newcastle have nothing.”

You May Like

How to Safeguard Your Mobile Privacy

As the digital world becomes more mobile, so too do concerns about eroding privacy and increased hacking More

'Desert Dancer' Chronicles Iranian Underground Dance Troupe

Film by Richard Raymond is based on true story of Afshin Ghaffarian and his friends More

Obesity Poses Complex Problem

Professor warns of obesity’s worldwide health impact More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam Wari
X
Katherine Gypson
May 25, 2015 1:32 AM
For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam War

For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Female American Soldiers: Healing Through Filmmaking

According to the United States Defense Department, there are more than 200-thousand women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Like their male counterparts, females have experiences that can be very traumatic.  VOA's Bernard Shusman tells us about a program that is helping some American women in the military heal through filmmaking.
Video

Video Iowa Family's Sacrifice Shaped US Military Service for Generations

Few places in America have experienced war like Waterloo. This small town in the Midwest state of Iowa became famous during World War II not for what it accomplished, but what it lost. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the legacy of one family’s sacrifice is still a reminder today of the real cost of war for all families on the homefront.
Video

Video On Film: How Dance Defies Iran's Political Oppression

'Desert Dancer' by filmmaker Richard Raymond is based on the true story of a group of young Iranians, who form an underground dance troupe in the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is the latest in a genre of films that focus on dance as a form of freedom of expression against political oppression and social injustice. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Turkey's Ruling Party Trying to Lure Voters in Opposition Stronghold

Turkey’s AK (Justice and Development) Party is seeking a fourth successive general election victory, with the goal of securing two-thirds of the seats in Parliament to rewrite the constitution and change the country's parliamentary system into a presidential one. To achieve that, the party will need to win seats in opposition strongholds like the western city of Izmir. Dorian Jones reports.
Video

Video Millions Flock to Ethiopia Polls

Millions of Ethiopians cast their votes Sunday in the first national election since the 2012 death of longtime leader Meles Zenawi. Mr. Meles' party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, is almost certain of victory again. VOA's Anita Powell reports from Addis Ababa.
Video

Video Scientists Testing Space Propulsion by Light

Can the sun - the heart of our solar system - power a spacecraft to the edge of our solar system? The answer may come from a just-launched small satellite designed to test the efficiency of solar sail propulsion. Once deployed, its large sail will catch the so-called solar wind and slowly reach what scientists hope to be substantial speed. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video FIFA Trains Somali Referees

As stability returns to the once lawless nation of Somalia, the world football governing body, FIFA, is helping to rebuild the country’s sport sector by training referees as well as its young footballers. Abdulaziz Billow has more from Mogadishu.
Video

Video With US Child Obesity Rates on the Rise, Program Promotes Health Eating

In its fifth year, FoodCorps puts more than 180 young Americans into 500 schools across the United States, where they focus on teaching students about nutrition, engaging them with hands-on activities, and improving their access to healthy foods whether in the cafeteria or the greater community. Aru Pande has more.
Video

Video Virginia Neighborhood Draws People to Nostalgic Main Street

In the U.S., people used to grow up in small towns with a main street lined by family-owned shops and restaurants. Today, however, many main streets are worn down and empty because shoppers have been lured away by shopping malls. But in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia, main street is thriving. VOA’s Deborah Block reports it has a nostalgic feel with its small restaurants and unique stores.

VOA Blogs