Big South African clothing and apparel retailers should shoulder the blame for “deplorable and terrible working conditions” in the country’s textiles industry, the Southern African Textile and Workers’ Union (Sactwu) said yesterday.
South African textiles workers in peri-urban and rural areas were struggling with poor working conditions such as long working hours, poor pay and strict toilet visiting times, global union IndustriALL said in a new report, Deplorable Working Conditions at Textile and Garment Factories in South Africa.
The report follows a visit to textile manufacturers in Mandeni, KwaZulu-Natal, in December by labour inspectors from the Department of Employment and Labour.
The inspectors, notes the report, discovered that workers in the factories were working “12 long working hours with only 30 minutes lunch breaks” while occupational health and safety violations are common.
“Workers face restrictions when going to the toilets and having lunch in areas with unsanitary conditions. Some chemicals used in the factories were unlabelled and handled without personal protective equipment and in some instances placed in front of fire equipment,” adds the report.
Further to this, the textiles factories in the area paid wages that were below the minimum wages for the garment and textile industries. Some employers were paying R10 per hour instead of the industry minimum R25.42 per hour as agreed upon in the National Bargaining Council for the Clothing Manufacturing Industry, made up of unions and employers.
Sactwu national industrial policy officer, Etienne Vlok, told Business Report in an interview yesterday that the “deplorable” working conditions of the textile industry were affecting workers and their families.
He said the terrible conditions were most prevalent in rural and peri urban areas that were difficult to control as operators were frequently on the move.
Vlok said large South African retailers were making the situation difficult by not insisting on responsible workplace practices from the manufacturers that supply them with textiles.
“The big concern is that SA shops and retailers are often the ones who gain the most from these practices. The companies manufacturers sell on the garments to retailers who then make money based on the exploitation of clothing workers by employers,” said Vlok.
There is global pressure for companies and retailers to move towards sustainable procurement.
In South Africa, clothing and apparel retail companies are also faced with headwinds such as power-outages and slowing down consumer purchasing power amid a cost of living financial squeeze.
JSE-listed Truworths said yesterday in a trading update that credit selling was slowing down owing to the poor credit health of South Africans.
“Globally there is a move towards more sustainable practices. The Masterplan (for the industry) agrees that we will pursue high road of compliant wages and these retailers are going against all of that by buying garment from these manufacturers,” added Vlot.
Romatex, one of the largest household textile manufactures in South Africa, which supplies textiles for the retail and hospitality sectors, said local clothing retailers were already hoping to source 60% of all textile products from within the country during the next five years.
This would create around 121 000 new jobs in the textile industry by 2030, although there are many challenges to attaining this, including the poor working conditions and remuneration at some factories.
Paule France Ndessomin, IndustriALL’s regional secretary for Sub-Saharan Africa, said South African textile factory owners “must respect and allow workers to enjoy their rights” at work in the textile and garment factories.
“Trade unions have fought hard for the enactment of the national labour laws and for the ratification of international labour conventions on workers’ rights and collective bargaining and these gains must be protected through compliance,” added Ndessomin.
Some employers in the South African textiles industry said the industry was facing immense pressure from imports of cheaper textile products. World Bank data shows that in 2021, the top partner countries from which South Africa Imported textiles and clothing included China, Eswatini, Lesotho, India and Mauritius.
Ajit Valjee of JMV Textiles said by phone: “Obviously, imports are a big problem for our company. The report (on deplorable working conditions) is not a true reflection of our company.”
Imported pre-owned clothing was also another big problem for South Africa.
According to OECD, South Africa imported $10.5 million (R197m) in used clothing in 2021, becoming the 76th largest importer of pre-owned apparel in the world.
Used clothing merchandise was the “623rd most imported product in SA” with imports originating mainly from Netherlands, Italy, Pakistan, Germany and United Arab Emirates.