Tens of thousands of jobs in the African garment sector dependent on exports to the United States are at risk unless US Congress urgently addresses reauthorization of the Africa Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA).
Trade and investment, specifically the extension of AGOA, topped the agenda at the US Africa Leaders Summit from 4 to 6 August 2014 in Washington DC. AGOA is a non-reciprocal preferential trade programme under which products from eligible sub-Saharan African countries have duty-free access to US markets. It was first passed by US Congress under the Clinton administration in 2000 and is due to expire in September 2015. The uncertainty over its extension is having an increasingly negative impact on orders placed with African based suppliers.
As a result, IndustriALL Global Union is calling for AGOA to be a permanent programme to encourage longer-term and higher capital investment, which may also lead to increased diversity in exports from the region.
Tens of thousands of jobs in the garment sector are dependent on exports under AGOA, which make up one fifth of non-petroleum exports under the trade agreement. However, there are poor working conditions in many of these garment factories.
There are many examples; most recently Jane Ragoo and Reaaz Chotoo of Mauritian union Chemical Manufacturing and Connected Trades Employees Union reported that “Workers' interests are the least priority of AGOA and thus the US. The wages are so low and the job so precarious that a vast majority of Mauritian workers do not want to join the textile sector. Consequently, more than 50 per cent of the workforce in the textile sector is made up of foreign workers and month after month this number is increasing. So the competitive edge of the textile sector in Mauritius is geared towards the exploitation of foreign workers.”
IndustriALL has also recommended that the special provision given to Lesser Developed Countries, which allowed fabric from a third country to be used in the production of garment exports under AGOA, be extended to all AGOA eligible countries, such as South Africa.
“South Africa’s apparel exports to the US have collapsed since the early 2000s partly due to the fact that it has been displaced by exports from mainly Asian countries and because the South African textile sector has shrunk with fewer spinning, weaving and knitting mills,” reports Etienne Vlok, researcher at the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers Union. “This has meant it has been very difficult to comply with the current AGOA rule of using local yarn and fabric in order to benefit from AGOA.”
IndustriALL hopes the need for redress on exploitative conditions and other issues will result in a revision of AGOA that strengthens the protection of workers and jobs. Due consideration of the recommendations from labour, including the largest federation of unions in the United States - the AFL-CIO, as well as from other stakeholders may increase the time it takes to draft the reauthorisation. When AGOA will be addressed by Congress is anyone’s guess, with some holding little hope that the extension will happen before 2015.