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Unions discuss revival of the textile and garment sector in Africa

15 July, 2021Illegal imports, especially from China, are threatening the revival of the textile and garment sector in Africa, said IndustriALL Global Union affiliates during an online meeting on 9 July.

Other threats include a lack of clarity on how the African Continental Free Trade Area will benefit smaller economies, and how regional economic integration will be implemented. The meeting also discussed how unions can continue organizing and strengthening their capacity under the Covid-19 pandemic which is forcing some garment buyers to cancel orders. The unions also discussed energy transition and manufacture by robots.

Cheap Chinese imports have decimated the textile industries in Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, and other countries. In Ghana, only 4 out of 30 textile companies remain operational, said the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU). The union said the country used to manufacture yarn for fabrics that were sold locally and in Sub Saharan Africa but not anymore.

Solomon Kotei, the general secretary of ICU said:

“The unbridled influx of cheap, inferior, Chinese textiles onto the Ghanaian textile market due to the so-called globalization, trade liberalization, trade agreements and protocols, dealt a devastating blow to the textile industry. Established patrons of the textile industry, switched loyalty and started buying the cheap, inferior Chinese textile imports.”

“What broke the back of the textile industry is that the Chinese pirated the designs of the Ghana textile manufacturers, especially the Tex Styles Ghana Limited, printed the inferior quality designs, and flooded the Ghanaian textile market at cheaper prices.”

 The unions have raised the issue with the government to tighten import licensing to protect the local industries.

In Nigeria, although the unions engaged the government in the formulation of the cotton, textile, and garment (CTG) policy that is meant to revive the sector, the meeting heard that cheap imports from China continue to undermine these efforts. This is worsened by insecurity in some parts of the country which facilitates smuggling and corruption.

Joachim Opara, the deputy general secretary of the National Union of Textile Garment and Tailoring Workers of Nigeria said:

“Under the CTG policy, unions reached an agreement with the government to source the army, police, and navy uniforms from the local garment industries. Further, the farmers also grew enough cotton and unions supported the manufacturing of better quality and quantity of textiles for the local market.”

The meeting heard that there are several ways to make unions sustainable. For example, the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers Union (SACTWU) has implemented several strategies that included campaigning for a decent work agenda, collective bargaining agreements, social dialogue, and building the “social power of trade unions” to better service their members.

Simon Eppel, a SACTWU researcher, said:

“The union took a multilayered approach which identified that it is necessary to industrialize rather than export raw materials. We developed a monitoring system to detect fraud because we were losing factories. There were also boardroom negotiations, and we had allies in the media. To win employers support, we argued that factories should be run better with quick deliveries of quality goods at affordable prices. There were also street protests against job losses, and coalitions were formed with retail workers.”

Unions were also fighting against sexual and gender-based violence at garment factories in Lesotho.

“We partnered with international organizations that include the Workers’ Rights Consortium and local non-governmental organizations to stop sexual and gender-based violence at Nien Hsing and Hippo Knitting factories,” May Rathakane, the Independent Democratic Union of Lesotho, deputy general secretary told the meeting.

“Economic recovery in the textile and garment sector in Sub Saharan Africa must be fair, inclusive, and equitable. It must not be only to preserve shareholder value but to defend workers’ rights to job security and fair severance payments,” said Valter Sanches, IndustriALL general secretary.

Sector director Christina Hajagos-Clausen said:

“We support the call-to-action proposal by key stakeholders to form a global social protection fund for garment workers which will provide effective social protection to mitigate against the Covid-19 pandemic.”

The stakeholders include governments, banks and financial institutions, international organizations, brands and retailers, manufacturers, employers’ organizations, trade unions and development partners.