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

Lesotho Faces New Round of Violence, Political Crisis

Brutal killing of military officer has sent former leaders back into S. Africa where they're watching anxiously as regional officials head in to try to restore peace More

Video US Diplomat Expects Adoption of Bosnian Massacre Anniversary Resolution

Samantha Power says there's broad consensus about killings in Bosnia's war, but Russia calls resolution 'divisive,' backs UN countermeasure More

America's Most Exotic Presidential Pets

From alligators to bears, the White House has been home to some unusual presidential pets over the years More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountaini
X
July 02, 2015 4:10 AM
Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.

VOA Blogs