Workers in Swaziland are among the poorest in southern Africa. And this makes them wide open to exploitation by bosses seeking to drive down wages.
The plight of the Swazi worker has come to light with the news that textile factories in neighbouring South Africa might close down and move some of their business to Swaziland – because factory owners can get away with paying Swazis lower wages than South Africans.
Bosses are threatening workers in South Africa that they will close their factories and move to Swaziland if that country’s Bargaining Council goes ahead with its threat to force factories to pay the country’s minimum wage to textile workers.
More than 380 registered clothing factories, employing about 15,000 workers, do not pay minimum wages and are facing shut-down. All factories will have to pay 70 percent of minimum wages by the end of March 2011, and the full amount by April 2012. Should these targets not be met, the factories will be closed down.
Textile factories in Swaziland – many of them owned by Taiwanese companies – are notorious for the poor pay and conditions they inflict on their workers. By paying what amounts to near-slave wages, the companies are able to boost profits and maintain their share of the international cheap textile market.
It is believed that many workers in textile factories at present in Swaziland do not receive even the kingdom’s minimum wage that varies between E420 (US$57) a month for an unskilled worker and E600 (US $81) a month for a skilled worker.
The US State Department, in its 2009 Country Report [on Swaziland] on Human Rights said, ‘These minimum wages did not provide a decent standard of living for a worker and family. Migrant workers were not covered under minimum wage laws. Wage arrears, particularly in the garment industry, were a problem. The minimum wage laws did not apply to the informal sector, where most workers were employed.’
I have reported previously that Swaziland’s textile workers are so poorly paid that some exist close to ‘starvation’.
Women workers get paid much less than the minimum wage. I reported in January 2010 about the women workers in Matsanjeni who typically earned E160 a month and were forced to turn to prostitution to survive.
Some women textile workers reported they earned E5.50 per hour (about 85 US cents) and had to live six to a room and three to a bed to get by. They tried to share food as the cheapest meal for one person costs E10 and a piece of fruit costs E1.
In September 2008, police fired teargas and rubber bullets at textile workers at Zheng Yong Garment Factory who were peacefully demanding that they be paid holiday money that was rightfully owed to them.
In South Africa, the Industry National Bargaining Council minimum wage for a Millinery General Worker engaged in manufacturing millinery is set at E2,405.57 per month (nearly six times the minimum rate for an unskilled worker in Swaziland).
In Swaziland, Phiwayinkhosi Ginindza, the Swaziland Investments Promotion Authority (SIPA) Chief Executive, said the closure of factories in South Africa would come as an advantage to the kingdom in terms of job creation.
He told the Swazi Observer, the newspaper in effect owned and edited by King Mswati III, sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch, Swaziland couldn’t take all 380 of the South African factories, because they would need infrastructure such as factory shells.
‘380 is a very large number and the country cannot accommodate such a number. We can accommodate those that we can,’ he said.