The world’s consumers want cheap clothes and fast fashion. Because of its size ($2.5-trillion a year) and low skill requirements, clothing manufacturing is a large employer of low-skilled workers globally.

In SA, 9.2-million people need employment, but the clothing industry currently employs fewer that 100,000 people. Knowing these facts, you’d expect SA to want a bigger piece of the action. But how can this be done?

A few weeks ago, I listened as the executive director of the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE), Ann Bernstein, offered some ideas about this in a presentation of her plan to develop an export-only processing zone in the Eastern Cape.

The proposed zone would focus on low-skill manufacturing, including clothing, by establishing employer-friendly labour market rules so that people could be employed at low wages and part-time.

Businesses in the zone would have to export everything they made to ensure they did not compete with local producers, which would continue to be obliged to pay minimum wages negotiated by big employers and unions — wages that are much higher than those paid in countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia and Ethiopia.

The industry has collapsed in the face of cheap imports

SA used to be a bigger player in clothing manufacture. The industry has collapsed in the face of cheap imports from companies based in countries where they pay much lower wages. But recently, as production costs in China and other South Asian countries have risen, there have been positive developments, with a smallanyana return to South African soil of the manufacturing of clothing and footwear.

Bernstein described the benefits of her proposed zone, saying that “low wages didn’t have to be forever”, and factories offered opportunity for advancement and promotion. Even without this, as someone in the audience commented after the presentation, any employment is better than no employment. With so many unemployed South Africans, it certainly sounds attractive. But, is it really? Isn’t the industry full of horrible labour practices?

Since the Rana Plaza disaster five years — when a clothing factory collapsed, killing 1,138 people and injuring many more — the Fashion Revolution has been actively campaigning for fair and safe working conditions in the production of clothes. It has also been demanding greater transparency in the fashion supply chain.

In February, results of a research project led by Microfinance Opportunities in partnership with Fashion Revolution and the C&A Foundation were released. They provide a comprehensive picture of the conditions faced by women employed in Bangladeshi, Cambodian and Indian clothing factories.

53% of Cambodian women in the study did not have enough to eat throughout the year

The research, called the Garment Worker’s Diaries, collected data from 540 women over the course of a year. It found they faced long hours, questionable pay practices, low wages, financial stress and unhappy working conditions. In Cambodia, where workers earned the local minimum wage, they nevertheless struggled to save for emergencies, major life events and general improvements of their standard of living. Many had families and were not being paid enough to live on: 53% of Cambodian women in the study did not have enough to eat throughout the year.

CDE’s proposed processing zone also draws comparisons with what is happening in Ethiopia, where international industrialists, many from China and Sri Lanka, are employing cheap labour in the new Hawassa Industrial Park.

According to a recent Bloomberg report, the industrial park, dedicated to the production of fast fashion, and in which thousands of people work, offers cheap labour and tax incentives.

Uresa Dinasa, an Ethiopian farmer whose land was expropriated by the government to make space for the Hawassa park, told Bloomberg that the women who were employed were not used to the regimented days. “Their backs hurt. They are exhausted. Those jobs, they make everyone sick.”

Women respond to their working conditions by slowing down, hiding in the bathroom or going outside for air instead of working faster

An Ethiopian college graduate told Bloomberg that she became depressed after doing a six-week job supervising 40 women. “Whenever workers didn’t meet a goal the bosses would yell.” She saw a seamstress being hit on the back, and described how the women responded to their working conditions by slowing down, hiding in the bathroom or going outside for air instead of working faster.

The Garment Diaries research found a similar problem. Because of the nature of fast fashion, there is immense pressure on factories and workers to create products quickly. “As a result,” the report says, “workers often report that their supervisors yell at them if the supervisor thinks that the worker is going too slow or making too many errors.”

A different kind of consequence of the manufacturing of cheap clothes is consumer waste.

In a UN Economic Commission for Europe report, the organisation says 85% of textiles are sent to landfills, creating 21-billion tonnes of waste a year. It also says that the average consumer is now purchasing 60% more items of clothing than in 2000, and that each garment is kept half as long.

Coupled with a human rights concern for their employees’ lives and their dignity, industrialists should be aware of a growing demand by consumers, especially rich ones, to understand who is making their products and how they are made.

The Garment Diaries gives industrialists “something to consider above and beyond their margins when deciding where to make their clothes”.

For poor consumers, more expensive clothes mean less money for other things

Of course, the world’s poorer consumers and retailers such as Walmart might be less willing to pay the price of more ethically produced clothes: for poor consumers, more expensive clothes mean less money for other things; for Walmart, it could mean lower profit.

This raises a critical question for the proposed South African export zone: for whom should it make clothes? For those who want the cheapest apparel possible, which is often made in sweatshops in the East, or for those who are prepared to pay for clothes made by workers who can send their children to school?

The Coega proposal could be an opportunity to set an example for clothing production by moving away from the dehumanising sweatshop model to a more sustainable, humane one.

  • This article was first published on on 30 March 2018
  • Photo credit: Supplied