MAPUTSOE — Sitting behind a sewing machine at a textile factory for up to 10 hours a day has been ‘Manthabiseng*’s routine for the past decade.
Yet, the “matchbox” house she retires to at the end of each taxing day hardly matches the work she has put in an industry that has experienced phenomenal growth.
Her “home”, a tiny single room sits on a dingy honeycomb of similar structures primarily used by textile industry workers in this busy town of Maputsoe, the gateway to South Africa’s Free State Province.
A wardrobe sitting in the corner, a music player, a fridge and a kitchen unit that doubles as a TV stand — all cheap quality furniture — are the prized possessions Manthabiseng has to show for her years of work.
“I have had to starve to be able to buy all these,” she says, shifting through the stuffy room that hardly has any space to manouvre. “There is just too much to do with such little money.”
‘Manthabiseng has been working in the textile industry for the past 10 years, six of them at Jonsson Manufacturing (Pty) Ltd textile firm, which describes itself as one of Africa’s leading work wear brands.
Earning a measly M920 a month, M4 above the minimum wage, ‘Manthabiseng is the face of tens of thousands of workers who represent the upside down of a booming industry.
Buoyed by a sweetheart trade facility with the United States, Lesotho’s textile industry has grown to become one of the country’s top employers.
The African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA) passed by the US in 2004 allows a select group of African countries, including Lesotho, duty free access for goods such as garments into US markets.
The textile industry, dominated by Asians, has reaped huge rewards from the law.
With over 40 production plants, Lesotho has developed into one of Africa’s largest exporters of textile products because of the competitive edge offered by AGOA.
In 1999 the industry employed 10 000 people. Now, thanks to AGOA, that figure has grown to over 40 000 jobs.
With AGOA expiring in 2015, the government and industry players have been cracking heads on how to diversify markets to keep the sector at the top and avoid job losses that might follow.
These appear legitimate concerns in a country where close to half the 1.8 million population is jobless.
An estimated 56 percent of the population are battling hunger and poverty and live on less than one US dollar a day, according to the Bureau of Statistics.
Even those “lucky” enough to be employed, such as ‘Manthabiseng, are part of this statistic.
This makes them sceptical that the government and industry’s concern over AGOA is driven primarily by their plight.
Their situation has hardly ever improved even as AGOA has helped the industry boom and the government rakes in resultant taxes as well as the political gains that come with the impression that it is creating jobs.
After paying M180 rent and M30 shared electricity, ‘Manthabiseng still has to cater for her mother, eight-year-old daughter and two brothers who are casualties of the country’s high poverty and unemployment.
The four live in Peka, a village more than 30km from Maputsoe.
‘Manthabiseng says she will be lucky to save M100 (US14) for her monthly groceries and other amenities.
“The burden has always been unbearable to me. And it’s not getting any better,” she says, noting that her salary has only risen by M420 since first getting a job in the sector at Maseru industrial textile factories in 2001 where she earned M500 before moving to Jonsson Manufacturing.
Employers’ intransigence over co-operation with labour unions trying to push for better working conditions mean workers will have to do with their meagre incomes for longer.
Jonsson Manufacturing, for example, has barred workers from joining the Lesotho Clothing Allied Workers’ Union (Lecawu), according to unionists and workers at the firm.
“Workers at Jonsson are not happy with their managers. Jonsson does not want to negotiate salaries with us (Lecawu). They have refused to sign the union’s recognition agreement,” said Lecawu secretary general Daniel Maraisane.
“They want us to remove some of the clauses in our laws especially the one on annual rate increase.”
The firm has confirmed as much.
“We are not prepared to negotiate the wage rate at plant level with them (Lecawu) or anyone else; and the union is trying their best to threaten and bully us into submission,” reads a letter by the company’s chairman, Nicholas Jonsson, to the Lesotho Times, adding that his firm “voluntarily” paid its workers 8.3 percent above the gazetted minimum wage.
But as the tug of war between employers and trade unionists rages on, workers such as ‘Manthabiseng can hardly bear it any longer.
Yet Nicholas Jonsson, the company’s director and owner, insists his workers are treated much better than others in the industry.
In a letter to the Lesotho Times, Jonsson said: “It is common knowledge that there is no other factory in Lesotho that does what we do for our people.”
He lists the provision of tea, soup, Christmas parties, uniforms, a ‘generous’ funeral scheme and a clinic as benefits that his company has provided to staff.
Jonsson said Lecawu was resorting to crude tactics to force Jonsson Manufacturing to pay more but he will not budge because he believes the company is doing enough for its workers already.
“I find it disingenuous in the extreme for anyone to try and hurt the employment of two thousand people for no gain at all in a country that needs more firms like Jonsson Manufacturing to create sustainable employment,” he said.
Such is the common defence-line that many textile factories have used in the past when criticised for their low wages.
Being the biggest employer in Lesotho the textile industry has learnt to leverage its position when faced with hostile labour unions.
Wary of rocking the boat, the government has over the years agreed to marginal increase to the minimum wage in the industry.
The result is that textile workers have remained underpaid for years.
“The work keeps pilling up every day. The overload has taken its toll on me. I am not as healthy as I used to be because we are over-worked,” ‘Manthabiseng says resignedly.
*not real name