ICFTU OnLine – January 13, 2006(1)

Brussels, 13 January 2006 (ICFTU OnLine): The termination of the Multi-Fibre Arrangement (MFA) on 1 January 2005 has had a devastating impact on the fragile, emerging, textile economies of many African countries. In Lesotho, for example, in the period between January and June 2005 at least 10 textile factories shut down, leaving over 13,000 people jobless, a huge figure for that small country of some 2.2 million inhabitants (and where the textile industry employed some 54,000 people before the ending of the MFA). Daniel Maraisane, the General Secretary of the Lesotho Clothing and Allied Workers’ Union (LECAWU), has been leading the trade union struggle for over 20 years. He discusses the impact of the ending of quotas on Lesotho’s workers and gives some insights into the role of trade unions in Africa.

What impact has the ending of the textile quotas system had on Lesotho?

We knew a crisis was coming, but it still shocked us. Most of our textile investors, if not all, come from Asia, mostly Taiwan and China.  They say it’s easier and cheaper to produce in China and India now. It’s made the investors go back home to make the most of the advantages in both countries. Little Lesotho just doesn’t have the capacity to compete against such giants.

What are your biggest problems?

The biggest crisis is job losses because of factory closures. And the second one is the imposition of short time – that is, reduced working hours. This is impacting on our membership. Members can’t educate their kids, they can’t pay for transport. Many workers have been forced to work only two weeks a month. Very few factories are stable, in fact we could say that only six are. Others retrench or use short time.

Our tradition is that we are responsible for a big number of people, an extended family; so one job loss affects not only the immediate family but the extended family too.

What will happen to the textiles industry in Lesotho if some type of quota system is not re-introduced?

If this goes on we anticipate 70 percent unemployment, which is already running at 40 percent. The country is in crisis. We are in a real crisis.

But there are things that can be done. For example, uniforms for the police, army and nurses are being made in South Africa. We could produce them here. The same goes for shoes.

Our education system doesn’t address our daily problems and the new economic realities. Most of the factory managers and supervisors are from abroad. It’s high-time that we filled these posts with local people through the development of our own higher education institutions.

In the process of industrialising did the Lesotho government make a mistake by concentrating almost exclusively on textiles?

Yes perhaps we did make a mistake in putting all our eggs in one basket.

But the government did not have a good strategy to deal with a crisis they knew was coming. We were over-reliant on the US market. We should have done more to develop the European market. This was and is the responsibility of the government and investors.  The government should also have looked for a wider base of investors.  They relied too much on investors from Taiwan.

What are your views on economic globalisation?

Globalisation may be good for developed countries; but as an African I know that most of our precious products were taken by the colonial masters. Globalisation is too premature for Africa. Countries like Mozambique and Angola were never stable until recently. It’s unfair to ask them to globalise.

International trade is difficult for Lesotho, which doesn’t have access to the sea. We have to go through South Africa. There are many regional factors that have to be considered. Our currency (the maluti) is tied to the South African rand, so when the rand is doing well against the dollar so is ours, and when it’s doing badly so does ours. These are factors beyond our control.

What motivated you to become a trade unionist?

I saw trade unionism as a way of combating the apartheid regime in South Africa, where I worked as a miner. When I became a shop steward, I became more and more involved. I became fascinated by the history of the black trade union movement. Cyril Ramaphosa (then General Secretary of South Africa’s National Union of Mineworkers) was a great inspiration and example. He told me to go on, that I had potential, that I should keep on reading, keep on with the movement.

Why does Lesotho — and Africa in general — need trade unions?

To me unions are still very relevant in the present environment. It’s just that some trade union leaders are easily manipulated by capitalists.

In Africa today the unions are the voice of the poor. We are defending the workers. Now we are defending the people against our own brothers.  Apartheid may have ended in South Africa, but the people who are holding the economic keys are still the same people who held the keys in the apartheid era. This makes trade unions still relevant. The struggle continues.

The behaviour of the Asian investors in Lesotho is unacceptable. In China, for example, workers work much more than eight hours a day. They want to do the same here in southern Africa. And we are saying: “No! You can’t do that”.

How can trade unions contribute to the development of Lesotho?

It is high time that the government and investors took trade unions as their partners in development. This would enable us to contribute more than now. For example, if the government goes to Europe or China to look for investment it is important to have a trade union representative on their delegation, so that the issue of labour laws and fair worker practices are well explained before investors come here. Unions are the custodians of the labour laws.

What does the future hold for Lesotho?

In the past we have had political crises. But this one is an economic crisis, the most terrible crisis we have ever faced. Everybody is panicking now, whether you are an investor or in the government, they are all panicking. Members are losing their jobs. We are deeply worried.

Interview by David Browne

For more information please see: Trade Union World Briefing: Uganda: a government at the service of employers, by click here.

ITGLWF video “Hanging by a Thread – How WTO Dogma is Destroying Textile and Garment Manufacturing in the Developing World” can be seen by clicking here.

Spotlight interview with William Muga Akech, (TTWU – Kenya) on the social impact of the ending of the MFA in Kenya can be seen by clicking here.