For a moment, it appeared as if workers in South Africa’s clothing industry would join their colleagues in the mining and transport sectors in long and disruptive strike actions that have caused the rand to depreciate sharply against the dollar in recent weeks, making investors jittery.
Instead, the 10,000 workers from the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union ended their two-day protected strike action against member companies of the United Clothing and Textile Association. The strike was essentially a warning to UCTA, according to SACTWU general secretary Andre Kriel, to desist from its “continued undermining of the clothing bargaining council and their continued payment of wages below the legally prescribed levels.”
SACTWU alleged in a memorandum that UCTA “is an association of employers whose members practice some of the worst forms of abuse of clothing workers in South Africa, and which is trying to drag South African workers back to pre-apartheid forms of employment.”
The memorandum went on the say that UCTA companies are overwhelmingly noncompliant and break the laws and agreements that try to protect the rights of clothing workers in the country. The list of violations includes “breaking the basic conditions of employment for clothing workers and exposing workers to illegal health and safety conditions at work and undermining workers’ health and safety-related rights.”
In addition, SACTWU accused UCTA of victimizing workers who joined the union, and “making illegal, unfair and penalty deductions from workers’ already low wages.”
The majority of the workers were from the KwaZulu-Natal region, which encompasses Newcastle, Durban and Qwaqwa, where many clothing factories are situated. Newcastle has been cited as being particularly notorious for failing to comply with the legally prescribed minimum wage regulations, which the Minister of Labor raised just last month from 369 rand a week, or $38.50 at current exchange, to 414 rand, or $43, following a negotiated agreement between SACTWU and various bargaining council party clothing employer associations.
Many of the Newcastle factories are Chinese-owned, which in itself is a controversial issue for the industry. In 2011, the failure of these factory owners to reach an agreement with the unions and the National Bargaining Council over wage increases resulted in some of these factories closing and leaving thousands of workers unemployed. Other factories have been hit with writs ordering them to close due to noncompliance with minimum wage directives. The factory owners, who banded together under the banner of the Newcastle Chinese Chamber of Commerce, have said in the past that the directives did not apply to them as they were not party to the wage negotiations. Nor were they members of any associations representing the interests of factory owners. However, SACTWU and the National Bargaining Council have continuously insisted that once the Ministry of Labor published the prescribed wage increases in the Government Gazette, they became law and as such applied across the board to the entire clothing industry.
Strikes in South Africa have become increasingly violent. Last August, a protracted strike at the Marikana platinum mine, owned by mining giant Lonmin, turned into a “massacre” when South African police forces opened fire on striking black miners; 34 were killed and 78 wounded. In chilling echoes of the dark days of apartheid, ballistics reports confirmed that machine guns were used to attack the striking workers.
On Thursday, President Jacob Zuma, speaking in Cape Town to the National House of Traditional Leaders in Parliament, upheld the right of workers to strike, but took issue with how it was done, recalling that as a former trade unionist, “[We] didn’t wake up angry and call a strike.” He asked what the point of a strike action was. “Do we do it to make others lose their jobs or so that others could get jobs?”
He warned that wildcat strikes had the potential to derail the economy.
“I’m saying our economy, which is resilient, is facing that kind of a challenge. The tension in the industry will not help the economy of the country. I’m stressing the point because as leaders, there are some responsibilities we could undertake; we could impoverish our country without realizing it.”