Women in Lesotho’s garment industry losing jobs and hope amid pandemic

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Vekile Sesha stood outside the rusty doors of a garment factory in the industrial district of Lesotho’s capital, Maseru, wanting his luck to turn. Four months earlier, the nearby bluejean factory where she worked had abruptly closed, blaming falling demand for the Western brands it supplied amid the pandemic.

She had passionately loved the work: “I was doing something the world needed. His monthly salary of 2,400 loti (about $160) supported a constellation of family members in his village. “Because of me, they never slept on an empty stomach,” she said.

Every day since, Sesha, 32, has been fighting to get that life back. That morning, she joined a line of about 100 job seekers outside the factory that supplies pants and sports shirts to US stores.

As the doors opened, Sesha and the other women rushed forward. One manager called the skills he needed: “Cutting. Sewing. Marking.” A few minutes later, the doors closed and Sesha retreated — she didn’t get one of the temporary jobs.

When the pandemic hit the world two years ago, the global fashion industry collapsed. As demand collapsed, brands canceled orders worth billions of dollars and factories in Africa and Asia went bankrupt. Few have felt its effects as harshly as the tens of millions of workers, mostly women, who sewed the clothes of the world.

In Lesotho, a mountainous point in a country nestled in the interior of South Africa, the pain was particularly widespread. Although small compared to global garment giants Bangladesh and China, Lesotho’s garment industry is the country’s largest private employer and more than 80% of its workers are women, according to government officials. Most, like Sesha, are the first women in their families to earn paychecks, a gender revolution built on t-shirts and tracksuits.

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

In total, more than 11,000 of Lesotho’s 50,000 garment workers have lost their jobs since March 2020, according to government figures. It was catastrophic for one of the least developed countries in the world, with 2.1 million inhabitants and few formal employers.

Mabuta Irene Kheoane still works in a factory in Lesotho. Every day, she observes the crowds looking for a job.

“I know these ladies are hungry,” she said. “They have children. What if maybe my factory closed too?

Kheoane grew when Lesotho had another export: the labor of its men. They left by the tens of thousands for the gold, diamond and platinum mines of South Africa. Money sent to their families was Lesotho’s main source of foreign income.

But by the time Kheoane turned 18 and went looking for work at Maseru’s factories, many South African mines were empty or had ceased operations. Women like Kheoane were set to become key to Lesotho’s economy.

In 2001, Lesotho signed a US trade agreement, the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which guaranteed it duty-free US imports of domestically produced garments. Chinese and Taiwanese companies have built factories on the industrial outskirts of Maseru. Today, textile products account for nearly half of Lesotho’s exports.

The effects of industry are felt in Maseru. Shacks sprouted outside factories, selling goods. Taxis bring commuters from the outskirts of the city. The owners have built cinderblock rooms with outhouses.

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

The first whispers of COVID-19 came in early 2020, when Chinese companies supplying fabric canceled deliveries. Lesotho eventually entered a strict lockdown.

For two months, its garment industry shut down, except for a few factories that shifted to masks and protective gear. To avert an all-out crisis, the government made emergency payments of 800 loti ($55) a month to permanently employed garment workers. It was barely enough to pay the rent.

One morning Sesha arrived at work to announce the closing of the factory. She spent some of her last dollars buying sleeping pills to soothe the thoughts that raced through her mind at night: Should her son quit school? How would she cover the rent?

Kheoane clung to her job. Every day, as she marked the seams of her t-shirts thousands of times, she thought of her family at her home in Ha Ramokhele, a two-hour drive from the city. Her son, Bokang, stayed there with his mother.

Kheoane’s wish: “I don’t want him to work in a factory,” she says. “Nobody wants their children to have the life they had.”

Experts are uncertain about the future of the garment industry, both in Lesotho and globally. It is unclear whether the industry will find ways to better protect workers or if it will continue its race to produce the cheapest possible production.

Amid the uncertainty, Kheoane is grateful for the work. On her monthly payday in February, she walked through the factory gates with a stack of neat bills in her pocket. Each garment worker’s wage supports half a dozen people, according to development experts. For this salary, Kheoane’s son needed new school shoes and his mother had asked for supplies. She got to work on the purchases.

Across town Sesha was home – no pay to spend. The rent would soon be due. Her boyfriend had helped with the expenses and she was beginning to feel indebted to him.

“I hate it,” she said simply.

So on Mondays, she woke up early and put on the jeans and sneakers she had bought back when her salary allowed for such luxury. She would be in position at 7 a.m., when a horn sounded inside the factory gate, signaling the start of the working day.

And as the employees disappeared inside, Sesha would wait. And she will wait every day, hoping to work.

“It doesn’t look like a job is coming our way, but we have to stay optimistic,” she said. “If not this week, maybe the one after that. Or the one after that.”

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