About 500 workers at a textile factory in Swaziland needed medical treatment after inhaling poisonous chemicals, according to the kingdom’s trade union federation.
The Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA) said the incident happened at the Taiwanese-owned Tex-Ray factory in Manzini, the kingdom’s main commercial city on Friday (5 September 2014).
According to a TUCOSWA press statement doors at the factory were locked making it difficult for workers to escape the fumes. It said, ‘close to 500 workers collapsed and had to be treated in various medical institutions’.
Mduduzi C. Gina, TUCOSWA First Deputy Secretary General, said, ‘It is more disturbing to learn that the management of the company locked the exit points of the factory shell when workers wanted to escape from inhaling the lethal substance.’
Gina said the incident happened at the same time that TUCOSWA had announced it wanted to address Tex-Ray workers on workers’ rights and the lack of political freedom in Swaziland.
Last week, police prevented TUCOSWA and the Swaziland United Democratic Front (SUDF) from holding a prayer meeting outside Tex-Ray. Swazi media reported at the time that 1,500 workers had gathered.
The workers are concerned for their jobs after the United States dropped Swaziland from the Africa Growth Opportunities Act (AGOA) which allowed the kingdom to export goods at preferential rates. The US made the move because Swaziland, which is ruled by King Mswati III, sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch, has a poor record on political and workers’ rights.
Media in Swaziland have predicted that as many as 20,000 jobs in the kingdom’s textile industry could be lost as a result of the withdrawal of AGOA benefits that comes into force on 1 January 2015.
There are about 25 Taiwanese-owned factories operating in Swaziland, mostly textile and garment manufacturers, paying salaries described by workers as close to slave wages. There have been numerous strikes by workers trying to get decent wages, where the pay is so poor that many women workers are unable to feed themselves properly and have to resort to prostitution.
Wages in textile factories in Swaziland are so low that companies in South Africa threatened to move their factories to the kingdom to avoid paying the minimum wage in that country.
A report in 2010 stated that employees in Matsanjeni 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.
But, wages in Swaziland were still too high, according to Mason Ma, director and vice president of Tex-Ray. He told reporters in 2010 that recent increases had pushed ‘wage levels higher than in some Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia’.
In August 2010, Lutfo Dlamini, who was then Swazi Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation, told Taiwan journalists that all profits made in the textile factories for Taiwan-owned companies could be taken out of the kingdom. He said that this made Swaziland a better place to set up factories than anywhere else in Africa.
And, the then Taiwanese ambassador to Swaziland Peter Tsai told reporters a distinguishing feature of Swaziland in terms of investment ‘is that it allows full repatriation of profits and dividends of enterprises operating in the country’.
Dlamini said in Swaziland, ‘We believe in this country. You invest your money. You make profits and you are able to take the profits away.’
MINISTER RAIDS TEXTILE FACTORY
SWAZI TEXTILE PAY STRIKE ILLEGAL