The cost of no sweatshops: South Africa struggles not to be Bangladesh

Thu May 16, 2013 2:34am EDT
 
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By Jon Herskovitz

NEWCASTLE, South Africa (Reuters) - It's not luxurious, but Goldfinch Garments, the Chinese-owned South African factory where Sindisizwe Zwane works nine hours a day, is far from a sweatshop: the ventilation is decent, the lighting is good and basic safety measures are in place.

South Africa says its garment industry is better regulated and workers are better paid than in ultra low-cost Asian producers like Bangladesh, where the collapse of a factory killed more than 1,100 people last month.

The ruling African National Congress (ANC) government, with close links to labor unions, wants to go further by enforcing a wage agreement that would guarantee Zwane and her co-workers a raise.

But the garment industry has already lost three-quarters of its jobs in the past decade as cheaper imports have flooded the local market. Zwane, 28 and one of only two wage earners in a family of 14 people, fears that efforts to win her a raise could cost her livelihood.

"Of course I want more. I want a whole loaf of bread instead of the half I am getting. But half a loaf is better than nothing," said Zwane. "If I lose the job, we lose everything."

Zwane is one of about 250 workers at Goldfinch, one of a cluster of clothing factories in the hardscrabble industrial town of Newcastle, 260 km (160 miles) southeast of Johannesburg.

Goldfinch is spartan but appears safe and clean. The factory has rows of sewing machines where a workforce of mostly women spend hours stitching together clothes. Workers often bundle up on colder days and some cover their faces with cloth to protect them from dust.

Zwane can earn as much as about $220 per month, with her income depending on how many orders come in.   Continued...