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Clothing Workers in Newcastle PDF Print E-mail
Friday, 02 September 2011 15:44


Earlier this week, the Business Report published an op-ed piece by SACTWU’s National Organising Secretary, Chris Gina, dealing with the struggle of clothing workers in Newcastle. The published op-ed piece was edited quite extensively with significant information cut from the version submitted by SACTWU.

Below, for your information, we provide the full article submitted to the Business Report.

Clothing Workers in Newcastle

The cost of being a clothing worker in Newcastle is high. It costs between R50 and R100 a week for a worker to travel to and from work, if one takes a bus or taxi and lives in Madadeni or Osizweni. Household electricity can cost R70 a week, while rent costs on average about R40 a week.

The food and grocery expenses of low-wage workers are limited to basic goods, often simple carbohydrates which provide quick energy and fill one up rapidly. Bread, pap, flour, rice, potatoes, beans, sugar, cooking oil, washing powder and soap are bought in bulk and cost a worker at least R220 a week.

If workers spend on other items – such as vegetables, meat, onions, tea, coffee, milk, crèche, airtime, children’s transport to school, children’s school lunch, or even toothpaste, medication, toilet paper or clothing, amongst other things – their overall costs are higher.

Workers’ expenses are often greater than the present legal minimum wage in Newcastle for a starting machinist, R416.50 a week, or even that of a qualified machinist, R489 a week.

Despite this, commentators often refer to Newcastle when arguing for greater labour and wage flexibility with some Newcastle employers proposing a reduced minimum wage of R280 per week.

Would you be prepared to work 40 to 45 hours a week for R280? For that matter, would you be able to live off the legal Newcastle minimum wage of R416.50 per week?

Clothing workers are often sole bread winners who support at least five dependents. This means once a worker’s transport to work is paid, a wage of R416.50 is the equivalent of R8.13 per day per dependent. For a wage of R280 per week it would be the equivalent of R4.88 per day per dependant.

That R416.50 per week is considered “too high” is indicative of the skewed values of our society. For while clothing workers are often lambasted for wanting higher wages, few people complain about the incomes of South Africa’s executives, including executives at the clothing retailers where many of the garments made in Newcastle end up. For example, one clothing retailer CEO earned R8.55 million in the past year. It is the equivalent of R164 000 a week – about 400 times more than a clothing worker. No wonder South Africa is the most unequal country in the world.

The fact is that poverty wage workers may have a job, but their quality of life is little better than the unemployed. Even the demands of a very basic standard of living outstrip their means. In order to cope, workers employ a range of survival strategies including not eating for a few days during the week, relying on the support of their extended families and borrowing money from micro lenders at great cost.

We often hear that “half a loaf is better than none” and that this kind of struggle is a bitter pill to swallow on the road of progress. It is an opinion heavy with the hypocrisy of classism, articulated by the comfortable (who have enough loaves) who are divorced from the realities of life for poor and unemployed people.

Admittedly, sometimes workers also say “something is better than nothing”. When this is heard by ears deaf to the complexities of class, the sentiment is believed at face value. Workers’ desperation is then paraded as validation for subjecting them to poverty wages. But this is not the full story of what workers are saying. Time and time again during meetings I have held with Newcastle workers, they have unambiguously said “We are scared of losing our jobs. But we are not happy with our wages. We cannot live off them. We want more money.” Workers in Isithebe, Qwa Qwa and Botshabelo say the same things.

Is it possible for clothing workers in South Africa to receive better wages and still keep their jobs? Many employers and commentators would have us believe clothing jobs can only be kept if wages are dropped. The SA Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union (SACTWU) believes they are wrong. 

Our industry needs a longer term and sustainable solution. This exists in the form of the Customised Sector Programme, designed and agreed by SACTWU, business and government. This sector development strategy aims to move the industry away from competitiveness based only on price and towards improved productivity, work organisation, skill levels, machinery, quality and delivery times. This strategy will add value to goods and give manufacturers a greater opportunity to get their products into local retailers while at the same time securing a higher wage for workers.

What some Newcastle employers are proposing is impractical in the medium- to long-term. South Africa cannot compete in the race to the bottom. After all, the weekly wage of a clothing worker in Bangladesh is about R65, with many other countries paying similar low wages. We cannot win this race to the bottom.

But we can win if we focus on industry development in the manner identified in the sector development strategy and by implementing this strategy’s programmes.

Chris Gina is SACTWU’s National Organising Secretary.