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Can we rebuild South Africa’s clothing and textile industry one mask at a time?

by | May 15, 2020

The South African clothing and textile industry has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. It responded swiftly to ensure the protection of workers, and, for the moment, many businesses are making personal protective gear that is critical to managing the epidemic. But are these moves enough to sustain an already struggling manufacturing sector?

The first step taken to protect workers was a landmark agreement between South African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union, employers, the National Bargaining Council for the Clothing Manufacturing Industry and the Unemployment Insurance Fund reached at the end of March. This ensured that some 80 000 workers in the clothing industry throughout South Africa received full pay for a six-week lockdown period.

“It is a partnership that we have with the Department of Labour, in particular with the Unemployment Insurance Fund, to quickly and efficiently disperse unemployment insurance benefits to workers under the context of a State of Disaster,” general secretary of SACTWU Andre Kriel said in an interview with eNCA.

Weeks later, the garment and textile industry is among the limited number of sectors that have been able to resume operations, much of which is now devoted to PPE, including cloth face masks as well as more specialised gear (hazmat suits, boot covers, scrubs and gloves) needed by health workers.

“We’ve managed to get an enormous amount of the industry to change course and to start making PPE in the last 6 weeks or so. Many of those who have not previously been in PPE are now doing so,” says SACTWU’s National Industrial Policy Officer, Etienne Vlok. He says that there are 400 small, medium and large accredited companies, which collectively have the capacity to make approximately 13.6 million “good quality, affordable cloth masks” per week.

SACTWU has also worked with Proudly SA to set up a cloth mask portal to link buyers and producers. About 100 companies are currently listed on this portal with pricing details and images of their masks.

The Western Cape’s tourism, trade and investment agency, Wesgro, has launched a maskathon challenge calling upon businesses in South Africa to help donate 1 million fabric masks to those who need them most. Besides supplying masks to vulnerable communities, this will kickstart local manufacturing across small, medium and large-scale producers. Wesgro has implemented an online marketplace for local producers making PPE that, according to portfolio manager Antony van Teylingen has over 50 local fabric mask manufacturers and more than 170 manufacturers and suppliers of other PPE types. The number, he says, is growing daily.

The Craft and Design Institute conducted a survey after lockdown to their approximately 5 500 member businesses. Over 250 businesses responded that they had either started making masks or could easily start doing so. It is estimated that they can make in excess of 300 000 masks per week.

According to CDI’s market development programme manager Fran Stewart, they ensure that makers are compliant with official guidelines. It, too, has an online search and connect marketplace called Peek to assist makers access markets and to encourage people to support local businesses.

According to Marthi Raphael, CEO of PepClo, Pepkor’s Parow-based clothing factory, PepClo has started manufacturing washable and re-usable cloth face masks and surgical gowns in reaction to the significant increase in demand.

The factory expects to make approximately 75 000 masks per day and can scale this up significantly should the current demand remain.  Pepkor also donated 500 000 masks to government. It also supplies its employees with masks for personal and work use. “The health and safety of the 1 900 employees is a major focus during this time and strict safety and hygiene guidelines will be followed in the factory to ensure their safety,” says Marthie.

PepClo will manufacture protective surgical gowns for hospital staff once government has confirmed fabric specifications and Pepkor has procured materials. Marthie adds: “As and when the lockdown levels change, we will adjust our products accordingly.”

Given the weak Rand, could this pivot resuscitate South Africa’s garment and textile industry? Does it mean that the entire industry is up and running again? Does it mean that all workers have returned to business as usual?

Etienne says: “No, not at all. There are some significant problems we’ll experience because of the weak economy and because of lack of retailer sales. But it is assisting in keeping doors open and putting some money in workers’ pockets between now and when the summer orders eventually start coming in again.”

You could say we’re on ‘life support’ until the industry can walk on its own again.

  • A note from the NICD: Wearing a mask is not a primary preventative measure and should not provide a false sense of protection that leads to a misuse of masks. COVID-19 preventative measures include the exercise of good hand hygiene and physical distancing.
  • Image credit: Carina Sto / Unsplash
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