Cry, the South African Clothing and Textile Industry

Local manufactures struggle to compete with Chinese imports

South African citizens pride themselves in buying local produce. There are however certain sectors who do not enjoy this support. With the Chinese takeover of garment manufacturing worldwide, especially in South Africa, the clothing and textile industry is struggling.

FINGERS TO THE BONE: South African woman affected by Chinese take over                           

There are hints emanating from within the South African Clothing and Textile Workers Union (SACTWU) about a proposed national strike for a wage increase that will give urban factory workers a 7% increase and rural workers a 10% wage increase. Andre Kriel, General Secretary of SACTWU, confirmed in August that there has been a strong affirmative vote to support the national wage strike, saying: “Of the total number of votes counted, 86% (which consists of 32 505 votes) support wage strike action in pursuit of the union’s demands.”According to the Mail and Guardian, about 86% of the union members in the Western Cape and Gauteng, 85% of KwaZulu-Natal workers and 81% in the Eastern Cape supported the strike. There are still some adjustments to be made but these are not expected to change the result. Meanwhile, hardworking factory workers and passionate SACTWU representatives are up in arms… and fighting a losing battle. Chinese clothing manufacturing is killing this struggling industry.The Chinese are the largest clothing manufacturers worldwide and import hugely into South Africa. According to the Textile Federation of the South African Textile Industry, China imports 89% of clothing into the Republic since 2001, leaving India with 3% and the rest of the world at 8%.

Staggering as this percentage is, it leaves one wondering: how is the South African clothing and textile industry supposed to compete with China’s ability to mass-produce at very low cost? It is also worth noting that some of these items enter the country illegally and are counterfeit, never mind the conditions under which they were manufactured.

Bangladesh has recently been in the news after a multi-storey sweatshop collapsed after the factory manager was told to shut down the establishment by the authorities. It was later revealed that the factory was promoting child labour.

People in the counterfeit industry work under appalling conditions. ‘Meagre salary’ is an understatement when referring to how much sweatshop employees earn., an anti-sweatshop organisation, compiled a study that showed that an estimated 250 million children (ages five to fourteen), are forced to work in developing countries.

South African Customs… I hope you’re taking notes.

MADE IN CHINA: Scores of women’s jobs on the line                                    Source:

At Prestige Clothing in Maitland, factory workers have minimal time to sit down during work hours. A loyal worker at the factory, Mandisi Mniki, shared her story over her ‘lunch-break’: “I did not study further and I have no other choice but work in a factory. Working conditions here are very bad, the building is old and we feel we’re not safe here.” Mniki has been a factory worker for over ten years.Her job, onerous as it is, may not be there much longer as the past few years has seen an alarming decline in the number of clothing and textile factory workers employed in South Africa. It is not too surprising when one considers that most companies are investing in Chinese manufacturing for financial reasons… leaving South African factory workers to bite their nails and wonder if they will have a job tomorrow.Mniki explains: “As we all know, China manufactures cheap clothes as their labour is cheap. China might overpower South Africa by manufacturing a lot of clothes at cheap prices and South African manufacturers might have to close down. I do not think my job is safe.”

With the SACTWU strike being averted after the 7% wage increase was offered and accepted, Mniki disapprovingly says that she sees no real difference in the wage increase compared to the amount she was initially paid.

Producing in China might be cheaper than South Africa and some shrewd business companies might jump at the chance of cutting costs, leaving the South African clothing and textile industry dying from this ‘Chinese syndrome’.

It is baffling that companies can preach the importance of producing or buying locally, yet still manufacture in China. I was appalled to find a clothing company that always talks about pride in local goods while actually manufacturing most of its clothing in China. Talk about hypocrisy at its ‘best’.

On the 1st of March of this year, SACTWU embarked on three protest marches, one to the South African Revenue Services. They were protesting the flow of illegal imports into South Africa and the undermining of local jobs. Global Industrial adds that these protests were intended to express disapproval of Capitec and its chairperson, Michiel Le Roux. Capitec was allegedly supporting and financing the efforts to attack workers’ rights by undermining the minimum wage and supporting local ‘sweatshops’. Capitec has publicly denied these accusations.

Research by the Apparel Manufacturers of South Africa (AMSA)

indicates that there are an estimated 6 000 informal Chinese shops in the country. Fin24’s Letitia Watson asserted in 2011 that South African clothing retailers have between 200 and 1000 shops around South Africa selling around 50% local and 50% imported products.

It’s no secret that the South African Clothing and Textile industry is in a shambles, leaving the workers unsure about their professional future. How is South Africa able to compete with China?

Unemployment in South Africa is at an all-time high at 25.6% in the second quarter of 2013. More job losses in the clothing and textile sector would be a catastrophe. If more workers in the clothing and textile industry were to be retrenched, what impact will it have on their families?

The Department of Trade and Industry has an enormous role to play in this, holding the power to enforce tough restrictions on the goods that are entering South Africa. According to the South African Customs Union (SACU), most goods may be imported to South Africa without restrictions. That is quite alarming, considering the Clothing Textile industry crisis.

It would be wise of the government to look through the eyes of the factory workers earning minimum wage when they decide to allow China to continue to import the bulk of goods into the country.

SACTWU was not available for comment.

Sibusiso Mkize


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