By  on October 7, 2009

JOHANNESBURG — Clothing workers in South Africa returned to work Thursday, two weeks after a nationwide strike organized by the South African Clothing & Textile Workers Union began, but problems persist for the industry.

Union General Secretary Andre Kriel said both sides had reached an agreement, with the assistance of the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation & Arbitration. At a press conference, Kriel said, “The union has always said it is better to find a solution to this situation than to have a strike.”

Some 55,000 workers had abandoned their posts at the factories and taken to the streets in protest against what was considered lower-than-acceptable wage hikes.

Speaking on behalf of the National Employers Caucus, chief negotiator Johan Baard, who is also executive director of the Cape Clothing Association, expressed satisfaction the strike was over and employees had returned to work. “We soon hope to be in a position to disclose full details of the settlement, but it is an arrangement that is mutually acceptable to all parties,” Baard said.

The strike came after negotiations between the union and employers failed. The union demanded a 7.9 percent wage increase, while the employers had insisted on 5 percent. Shortly after the strike began, the employers raised their offer to 8 percent. The union, however, rejected that offer, claiming it came with conditions that were unacceptable.

Analysts estimate a loss of around $13 million to the clothing and textile sector during the strike. One casualty was the 30-year-old clothing factory Rhein Fashions, based in the Western Cape, which was forced to shut down because it could not fill its orders. In the process, 52 workers lost their jobs.

Renato Palmi, a Durban-based analyst specializing in the fashion and textile industry, said while he understood the reasons for the strike on the part of the union, “strategically, it was wrong to do this.”

He explained that wages were low and there was a discrepancy in pay between metro and non-metro workers, which meant wages were dependent on whether one worked in an urban area or a nonurban area. The average take-home pay was the equivalent of about $53 a week.

Palmi cited canceled orders, lost hours of productivity, damaged relationships with suppliers and customers as among the impacts of the strike.

The clothing and textile manufacturing sector has a registered workforce of 230,000 people who are directly employed. Add to that a 200,000-strong workforce employed in related areas such as designers, resulting in an overall industry with annual sales of about $540 million, contributing 11 percent to the manufacturing sector and 16.2 percent to the annual gross domestic product of South Africa.

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