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.
TEXT SIZE - +
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

Russia-Ukraine Crisis Could Trigger Cyber War

Why Europe and the US may be "whistling past the graveyard?" More

Egyptian Court Jails 23 Pro-Morsi Supporters

Meanwhile, Egyptian officials say gunmen have killed two members of the country's security forces More

Pakistani Journalists Protest Shooting of Colleague

Hamid Mir, a host for private television channel Geo, was wounded after being shot three times Saturday, but is expected to survive More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Ukraine, Russia, United in Faith, Divided in Politicsi
X
Michael Eckels
April 19, 2014
There is a strong historical religious connection between Russia and Ukraine. But what role is religion playing in the current conflict? In the run-up to Easter, Michael Eckels in Moscow reports for VOA.
Video

Video Ukraine, Russia, United in Faith, Divided in Politics

There is a strong historical religious connection between Russia and Ukraine. But what role is religion playing in the current conflict? In the run-up to Easter, Michael Eckels in Moscow reports for VOA.
Video

Video Face of American Farmer is Changing

The average American farmer is now 58 years old, and farmers 65 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population. It’s a troubling trend signaling big changes ahead for American agriculture as aging farmers retire. Reporter Mike Osborne says a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau is suggesting what some of those changes might look like... and why they might not be so troubling.
Video

Video Donetsk Governor: Ukraine Military Assault 'Delicate But Necessary'

Around a dozen state buildings in eastern Ukraine remain in the hands of pro-Russian protesters who are demanding a referendum on self-rule. The governor of the whole Donetsk region is among those forced out by the protesters. He spoke to VOA's Henry Ridgwell from his temporary new office in Donetsk city.
Video

Video Drones May Soon Send Data From High Seas

Drones are usually associated with unmanned flying vehicles, but autonomous watercraft are also becoming useful tools for jobs ranging from scientific exploration to law enforcement to searching for a missing airliner in the Indian Ocean. VOA’s George Putic reports on sea-faring drones.
Video

Video New Earth-Size Planet Found

Not too big, not too small. Not too hot, not too cold. A newly discovered planet looks just right for life as we know it, according to an international group of astronomers. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Copts in Diaspora Worry About Future in Egypt

Around 10 percent of Egypt’s population belong to the Coptic faith, making them the largest Christian minority in the Middle East. But they have become targets of violence since the revolution three years ago. With elections scheduled for May and the struggle between the Egyptian military and Islamists continuing, many Copts abroad are deeply worried about the future of their ancient church. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky visited a Coptic church outside Washington DC.
Video

Video Critics Say Venezuelan Protests Test Limits of Military's Support

During the two months of deadly anti-government protests that have rocked the oil-rich nation of Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro has accused the opposition of trying to initiate a coup. Though a small number of military officers have been arrested for allegedly plotting against the government, VOA’s Brian Padden reports the leadership of the armed forces continues to support the president, at least for now.
Video

Video More Millenials Unplug to Embrace Board Games

A big new trend in the U.S. toy industry has more consumers switching off their high-tech gadgets to play with classic toys, like board games. This is especially true among the so-called millenial generation - those born in the 1980's and 90's. Elizabeth Lee has more from an unusual café in Los Angeles, where the new trend is popular and business is booming.
Video

Video Google Buys Drone Company

In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
AppleAndroid