SWAZILAND: Worst labour strife in a decade

Monday, March 10, 2008

A bloody week of the worst labour strife in a decade has exposed cracks in the Swazi government's poverty-alleviation plan of creating thousands of low-paying jobs by promoting a textile industry.

In the strike action, which began on 3 March, workers participating in peaceful marches to demand better salaries have been teargassed and beaten by police, and at least a dozen have reportedly been injured. More than 16,000 workers, most of them women, have been affected by the strike action.

Local media reported that the Swaziland police carried out unprovoked attacks on peaceful marchers on the first day of the strike. Several injuries were reported after riot police shot teargas into a line of marchers in the Matsapha Industrial Estate outside the central commercial town of Manzini.

Police spokesman Vusi Masuku defended the police action, saying some marchers had attempted to stop other textile workers from going to work. Some Asian-owned shops adjacent to factories reported looting.

On 5 March, several marchers were beaten and teargassed after vandals sealed the lock on the gate of a textile factory with glue. Uncertain of the culprits' identities, the police randomly struck at marchers, some of whom had to be hospitalised. One policewoman was injured by a thrown stone.

Alex Fakudze, president of the Swaziland Manufacturing and Allied Workers Union (SMAWU), told the Industrial Court on 5 March that factory owners had instructed the police to assault strikers. Industrial Court President Peter Dunseith ordered the police to permit peaceful picketing outside company premises.

"My take-home pay is R300 (about US$38) a fortnight," said Cynthia Ndwandwe, a mother of five employed by an Asian-owned garment factory. "I can no longer afford to buy bread."

Only job creating sector

Swaziland's textile industry is dominated by garment-making factories owned by Taiwanese immigrants who came to Swaziland in 2000/02 to take advantage of preferential trade conditions with the US under the African Growth and Opportunity Act, creating tens of thousands of employment opportunities.

The country is one of the few that has diplomatic ties with Taiwan and does not recognise the People's Republic of China. Taiwan returned the favour by encouraging its garment-makers to invest in Swaziland.

In turn, the Swazi government has offered tax holidays to incoming firms, and constructed factory shells that are sometimes leased for free of charge to large employers.

Textiles have become a key player in Swaziland's otherwise moribund manufacturing sector, which saw many of its multinational companies relocate to South Africa when apartheid ended in 1994 and economic sanctions against the government were lifted, making it unnecessary to use neighbouring Swaziland to gain access to South Africa's market.

Asian-owned textile firms, mainly located at the Matsapha Industrial Estate, offered the only significant job creation in the past decade, and led to the development of a new industrial park at Shiselweni, the regional capital in the south of the country, where some firms have set up shop.

Low wages and "cultural conflicts" bedevilled labour relations from the outset, but came to a head when a strike vote was approved by 30 percent of the nation's 16,000 SMAWU members, with the remainder abstaining, according to the union.

The union seeks to raise wages by 12 percent. "Textile workers are forced to live on mediocre salaries," said Fakudze. "How can breadwinners be expected to provide for their families on just R600 ($77) a month?"

The Ministry of Enterprise and Employment, which brought the textile industry to Swaziland, called workers and management to a resolution conference in Manzini for the evening of 6 March. On the table will be the wage dispute, but another less tangible issue will likely remain unresolved when workers return to their jobs: the workers' complaint about lack of respect.

"The Asians treat us like children," said Ndwandwe. "They yell, they speak down to us. This is not the Swazi manner of conduct. We think of them as guests in this country, and we refuse to be mistreated by people we have shown hospitality."

Members of parliament have complained that textile factory owners bring in relatives for management positions rather than train and promote Swazis, and have expressed concern about an isolationist mentality in the Asian community: parts of government-built factory shells have been converted into living quarters, which management rarely leaves.

The Swaziland Textile Exporters Association, which is following a no-work no-pay rule for the duration of the strike, argued that it had met government's goal of creating jobs in a country where few are available. The association said the expense of doing business in Swaziland, coupled with competition from China, put factories in an economic bind.

Source: IRIN