Thursday, June 8, 2023

Women from Lesotho’s clothing industry lose jobs, hope for COVID

MASERU, Lesotho ( Associated Press) – Vekile Sesha stood outside the rusted gates of a garment factory in the industrial district of Lesotho’s capital, Maseru, and wanted to change her happiness. Four months earlier, the blue jeans factory where she worked nearby had suddenly closed, blaming the declining demand from Western brands that supplied it amid the pandemic.

She loved the job very much: “I was talented and I did something the world needed.” Her monthly salary of 2,400 lots (about $ 150) supported a constellation of family members in her rural village. “Because of me, they never slept on an empty stomach,” she said.

Sesha, 32, has been fighting every day since then to get that life back. This morning, with a raging sun over her, she joined a line of about 100 job seekers outside the blue aluminum shell of a factory that supplies pants and athletic shirts to U.S. chain stores.

As gates swung open, Sesha and the other women jumped forward. A manager mentioned skills he needed: “Cut. Sewing. Mark.” But a few minutes later the gates slammed shut and Sesha fell back – she did not get any of the temporary jobs.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit the world two years ago, the global fashion industry crumbled. Faced with the collapsing demand, brands canceled orders worth billions of dollars and factories across Africa and Asia mastered. Few felt the consequences as harshly as the tens of millions of workers, most of them women, who stitched the world’s clothes.

In Lesotho, a mountainous spot of a country located entirely in South Africa, the pain was especially widespread. Although small compared to global clothing giants such as Bangladesh and China, Lesotho’s clothing industry is the country’s largest private employer, with more than 80% of its workers being women, according to government officials. Most, like Sesha, are the first women in their families to earn a salary, a silent gender revolution built on T-shirts and tracksuits.


This story is part of a year-long series on how the pandemic affects women in Africa, especially in the least developed countries. The Associated Press series is funded by the European Journalism Center’s European Development Journalism Grants program, which is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Associated Press is responsible for all content.


“This industry has made the women of our country much less vulnerable,” said Sam Mokhele, general secretary of the National Union of Clothing and Textile Allied Workers Union, which represents clothing workers in Lesotho. “But the pandemic devastated it.”

More than 11,000 of Lesotho’s 50,000 clothing workers have lost their jobs since March 2020, according to government figures. The job losses were catastrophic in one of the world’s least developed countries, with 2.1 million people and few formal employers.

The cuts have highlighted the uncertain nature of the profits the country’s female factory workers have made and the industry’s dependence on the whims of consumers on the other side of the world, where clothes are bought and disposed of at lightning speed.

Mabuta Irene Kheoane still works in a Lesotho factory, and she knows working like hair has become increasingly scarce. Every morning she looks at the crowd of women outside looking for work. The line that separates her from them is razor-sharp.

“I know those ladies are hungry, I know they have children,” she said. “What if my factory might also close?”

Like most of the women in positions like hair, Kheoane grew up in a time when Lesotho had another export: the labor of his husbands. For decades, they left the country by the tens of thousands to work in the gold, diamond and platinum mines of South Africa. The salary checks they sent home to their families were Lesotho’s largest source of foreign income.

Kheoane’s father left for the mines near the South African city of Rustenburg every January, where almost three – quarters of the world’s platinum is mined. Often the family only saw him again in December. After a while, he did not come home at all. Then he stopped sending money.

News filtered back – he started another family. Kheoane said she learned to never rely on a man.

By the time Kheoane turned 18 and went to look for work in Maseru’s factories, many of South Africa’s mines were empty or had their operations cut off, as mineral deposits became more expensive to mine. Women like Kheoane were on their way to becoming the key to her country’s economy.

In 2001, Lesotho signed a US trade agreement: the African Growth and Opportunities Act, which guaranteed tax-free imports to the US of clothing made in the country. Chinese and Taiwanese companies have built extensive factories on the industrial outskirts of Maseru. Today, textile products make up almost half of Lesotho’s exports, about $ 415 million annually, mostly en route to the United States.

The rapid industrial growth had a profound ripple effect on the city’s economy. Tin huts sprang up like weeds outside the factory gates and clothing workers sold everything from apples and beer to cellphone airtime and second-hand clothes. Every morning, taxis full of commuters streamed in from the city’s edges. Landlords built rows of simple corrugated iron rooms with outdoor toilets on the edges of the industrial districts, where the city relaxed in farmland and herdsmen let their sheep graze next to small corner shops and informal taverns.

“When you talk about this industry being devastated by the pandemic, it’s not just the workers themselves,” said Mokhele, the union leader. “It’s all around them, too.”

In Lesotho’s factories, the first whispers of the global crisis that became the pandemic came in early 2020, when the Chinese companies that supply most of the materials here abruptly canceled deliveries.

In early March, the first coronavirus cases were confirmed in neighboring South Africa. Shortly afterwards, Lesotho went into a hard lock.

For two months, it closed its entire garment industry, except for a few factories that turned to making masks and other protective equipment. To ward off the total crisis, the government has issued 800 loti ($ 52) a month emergency payments on permanently working garments. But it was barely enough to pay rent. And employees with temporary contracts, like Kheoane at the time, received nothing.

In May 2020, the factories reopened, but the crisis continued. Nien Hsing, a Taiwanese company that employed more than 10,000 people to sew jeans for American brands such as Levi’s and Wrangler, began to neglect workers by the thousands and closed factories. Others followed their example.

By the following year, workers were desperate. In May 2021, local unions staged a strike to try to increase the clothing sector’s monthly minimum wage – to 2,100 lots (about $ 140). The protests turned violent, with security forces fatally shooting at a garment worker.

Factories eventually agreed to increase wages by 14%, but complained the results would devastate their businesses. They warned that factory closures would follow.

One August morning, Sesha arrived at work with an announcement that the factory was closing. She was stunned. Factory work was a ticket to a life that was far more independent than her mother or grandmother might have imagined. She spent some of her last few dollars buying sleeping pills to silence the thoughts that raced through her head until late at night: Will her son have to leave school? How would she cover rent?

“I did not know where to start while thinking about my future,” she said.

Kheoane clung to her own work and tried to work harder and faster to avoid being the next worker to be released. Every day, while marking T-shirts thousands of times, she thought of her family at home in Ha Ramokhele, a mountain village two hours drive from the city.

It was the kind of place she and childhood friends scurried up steep mountain slopes to pick wild watermelons. Life’s soundtrack was the ringing of bells on cows herded by local shepherds. The only way to the city was a four-hour hike.

While Kheoane was working, her son, Bokang, stayed with her mother in Ha Ramokhele. At 11, he spent months outside the school during the pandemic, and Kheoane was worried he would fall behind.

Her biggest wish for Bokang: “I do not want him to work in a factory,” she said. “Nobody wants their children to have the life they had.”

Experts are uncertain about the future of the clothing industry – both in Lesotho and worldwide. It is unclear whether the industry will find ways to better cushion workers or continue its race to the cheapest possible production.

Amid the uncertainty, Kheoane is grateful for the work. On her monthly payday in February, she walked out of the factory gates with a crisp stack of bills in her pocket. A man fried pink rounds of baloney in a barrel of oil outside and tempted the crowd of workers. Kheoane bought two chicken necks from another seller and went to town.

Kheoane learned long ago that where there is money in Lesotho, many reach out to claim it. Each garment worker’s salary supports half a dozen people, according to development experts. For this salary, Kheoane’s son needed new school shoes, and her mother asked for groceries. Kheoane visited two stores for the purchases and used the calculator on her cracked smartphone to count food items.

Around her, downtown Maseru was lived with the energy of factory money. Lines stretched at banks and ATMs. Couples emerged from corner bars with gallons of beer. Grocery stores put up speakers outside their doors, which blared payday specials.

On the other side of town was Sesha at home and doing laundry. She no longer had a salary to spend. In a few days rent would be payable, and she was still not sure how she would pay. Lately, her boyfriend has jumped in to pay expenses, and she’s starting to feel obligated to him.

“I hate it,” she said clearly.

So she woke up early Monday morning and put on the jeans and Converse tops she had bought at the mall when her salary allowed such luxuries. She would be in position at 7 a.m., when a hooter cries from inside the factory gate, signaling the start of the workday.

And while the regular employees disappeared inside, Sesha waited and held an umbrella to block the sun. And she will wait every day, hoping for work.

“It does not seem like a job is coming for us, but we must remain optimistic,” she said. “If not this week, maybe the one after that. Or the one after that. ”


This story is part of a year-long series on how the pandemic affects women in Africa, especially in the least developed countries. Associated Press’s series is funded by the European Journalism Center’s European Development Journalism Grants program, which is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Associated Press is responsible for all content.


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