21 September 2017

Swaziland: Swazi Textile Workers Exploited

A trade union drive is underway in Swaziland to recruit workers in the kingdom's notorious textile industry.

The Amalgamated Trade Union of Swaziland (ATUSWA) has visited several factories across the kingdom.

ATUSWA's Bongani Ndzinisa told local media that workers in the textile industry had been neglected. The Swazi Observer reported (11 September 2017), 'He disclosed that the union had already conducted an assessment which indicated that the workers were faced with numerous challenges which affected their livelihood.

'Ndzinisa said they were in the process of encouraging workers to join the union, after which they will be writing to the various factories to demand recognition.'

The textile industry in Swaziland which is mainly owned by Taiwanese interests has a long history of exploitation.

In July 2014 a survey of the Swaziland textile industry undertaken by the Trades Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA) revealed workers were subjected to harsh and sometimes abusive conditions, many of the kingdom's labour laws were routinely violated by employers, and union activists were targeted by employers for punishment.

More than 90 percent of workers surveyed reported being punished by management for making errors, not meeting quotas or missing shifts. More than 70 percent of survey respondents reported witnessing verbal and physical abuse in their workplace by supervisors.

Commenting on the survey, the American labour federation AFL-CIO said, 'Some workers reported that supervisors slap or hit workers with impunity. In one example, a worker knocked to the ground by a line manager was suspended during an investigation of the incident while the line manager continued in her job.

'Women reported instances of sexual harassment, as well. Several workers said they or other contract (temporary) workers were offered a permanent job in exchange for sex.'

Mistreatment of workers in the textile industry in Swaziland has been known for many years and workers have staged strikes and other protests to draw attention to the situation.

In its report on human rights in Swaziland in 2013, the US State Department said wage arrears, particularly in the garment industry, were a problem. It said, 'workers complained that wages were low and that procedures for getting sick leave approved were cumbersome in some factories. The minimum monthly wage for a skilled employee in the industry - including sewing machinists and quality checkers - was E1,128 (US$113). Minimum wage laws did not apply to the informal sector, where many workers were employed.

'The garment sector also has a standard 48-hour workweek, but workers alleged that working overtime was compulsory because they had to meet unattainable daily and monthly production quotas.'

A damning report on Swaziland's textile industry called Footloose Investors, Investing in the Garment Industry in Africa, was published in 2007 by SOMO - Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations, in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

It said the Swaziland Government gave companies a large number of incentives such as tax exemptions and duty free importation of raw materials. The Government also allowed companies to take all profits and dividends outside of Swaziland, which in effect meant that there was little or no investment within Swaziland from the companies.

With a change of world trading conditions, Swaziland became less attractive to foreign companies. In order to maintain profits the companies began to lobby the Government for changes in the law. The companies especially wanted laws and regulations regarding labour loosened.

SOMO concluded, 'It seems that the public spending on building shells and infrastructure aimed at attracting foreign investment in the garment industry has not brought about much economic benefit so far.'

The report stated, 'Companies have been asking for certain "incentives" in exchange for their continued production in the country, implying that the country owes them something for their presence.

'One of the companies in Swaziland, for example, Tex Ray, announced its willingness to set up a textile mill but asked in return for less stringent labour laws and laws on the environment, and for the prices of electricity and water to be halved. They also felt that government should subsidise the wages.'

In September 2014 hundreds of workers at Tex Ray were affected by poisonous chemical fumes at the factory in Matsapha. Many needed hospital treatment and the factory was closed for several days. The Swazi Observer newspaper reported allegations from workers that retrenchment was a way for the company to avoid liability. The newspaper reported that other textile factories, including Kartat Investments, Kasumi and Union Industrial Washing, continued to operate.

In May 2015, it was estimated 3,000 people in the textile industry lost their jobs when the United States withdrew trading benefits under the Africa Growth Opportunities Act (AGOA) because of Swaziland's poor record on human rights which included workers' rights.

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