Mbabane — The threat of Swaziland being suspended from a US preferential trade agreement for poor progress in meeting democratic norms is threatening the livelihoods of tens of thousands of worker in a country where unemployment is already above 40 percent.
The 2000 African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA) offers developing countries duty-free access to some US markets, with the strict proviso that their governments show progress on enhancing democracy and human rights and upholding fair labour practices.
AGOA and the absolutists
Often referred to as sub-Saharan Africa's last absolutist monarch, the powers and prerogatives enjoyed by King Mswati III and the conduct of his government are jeopardising Swaziland's membership of AGOA.
In recent months, the authorities in Mbabane have faced increasing criticism from human rights organisations, with security forces accused of breaking up political marches and journalists and pro-democracy activists being arrested and put on trial.
A recent open letter to King Mswati signed by Nobel Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, universities and NGOs, noted "a disregard for legal procedures and basic human rights" and warned of "lasting damage to your country's standing with potential international investors and ....economic and political isolation," if there was not change and dialogue.
Warnings from Washington
The US has issued a series of warnings, setting a deadline of 15 May, by which time Swaziland was meant to have met several key conditions. These included amendment of the Industrial Relations Act, allowing for the registration of trade union and employer federations and the removal of bans on worker protests.
The US also proposes amendment of the Suppression of Terrorism Act, described by critics as a weapon to harass and detain pro-democracy activists, and amendment of the colonial-era 1963 Public Order Act, used to suppress anti-government dissent. The US recommends the dissemination and implementation of the Code of Good Practice on Protest and Industrial Action.
Heading a US delegation to Swaziland in April, Deputy Assistant Trade Representative for Africa, Constance Hamilton, said it was up to the Swazi government "to decide whether they want to be part of the AGOA family", stressing: "it is all about political will."
US Ambassador to Swaziland Makila James was blunter, hinting at past frustrations and stressing that non-compliance with US recommendations would mean "on January 1, 2015, goods coming into the United States from Swaziland will be assessed duty because there will no longer be a trade preference to allow them duty-free entry."
IRIN has reliable information that the review process has now ended and an announcement is expected in the coming weeks.
Swaziland's wilting economy
An AGOA suspension will hit hard. Swaziland has one of the worst performing economies in southern Africa and according to the United Nations Development Project (UNDP) about two thirds of its 1.2 million population live below the poverty line.
Swaziland's membership of the Southern African Customs Union (SACU) has provided the state with an economic lifeline. But South Africa's weakening economic performance has had severe repercussions for its neighbours, severely reducing Swaziland's share from the world's oldest customs union.
If AGOA close the door...
Swazi business leaders understand the pressure for change from Washington and its implications. "Swaziland was put on notice that certain laws must be changed," an official with the Federation of Swaziland Employers, who declined to be identified, told IRIN. "King Mswati depends on these laws to suppress dissent and remain in power."
The official pointed out that suspension from AGOA would mean serious contractions in the garment industry and the loss of about 17,000 jobs.
In anticipation of Swaziland being struck from AGOA, one major garment manufacturer in Matsapha has announced its closure as all its products are shipped to the US to take advantage of AGOA.
Workers at risk
"Government is playing politics with our lives," Angela Dlamini, a garment worker at the Matsapha Industrial Estate near the commercial city of Manzini, told IRIN.
"I have two children, aged two and five. We live in a one room flat with a toilet and a water tap in the yard. My family helps me feed and clothe my children, because I earn so little. But we will starve without my job," she said. Dlamini earns R800 (about US$75) a month from her factory job.
None of the factory workers interviewed by IRIN knew that Swaziland's membership of AGOA was under threat and instead complained about low wages.
"If we are to continue working we must be paid more," Thab'sile Magongo, a seamstress at a Matsapha factory, told IRIN.
"We are starving. The factory owners say they will have to move to Asia where the wages are lower, but we don't believe them. What human being can survive on wages lower than what we get?"
When warned that Swaziland's suspension from AGOA could result in the closure of many of Swaziland's textile factories, Magongo replied: "we must then turn to prostitution; what choice do we have?"
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. ]