Self-interest is spurring the ‘white knights’ of Newcastle

Newcastle remains an area of contention in the local clothing industry and indeed in the national consciousness too (“High wages unravel Newcastle’s industry“, July 22).

The story of some Newcastle employers’ continued non-compliance with legally prescribed wage rates is being narrated as the actions of brave heroes in a last stand against a brutal trade union and a vicious bargaining council. These “white knights” are, reportedly, taking a noble stance to protect factories and the jobs of their workers and positioning themselves as a vanguard in the fight for employment and against injustice.

This is an appealing tale for some, but in reality this story is an excuse for crude exploitation.

We at the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union (Sactwu) recognise the challenges faced by local clothing manufacturers. For this reason, we have repeatedly led, proposed and agreed to solutions to assist them.

For instance, we have agreed to a flexible wage structure for the sector, where the minimum wage for some workers is significantly lower than that in other parts of the country. In fact, there are at least 13 different legally prescribed starting rates for machinists, based on geographic differences. The lowest prescribed wage is in an area such as Newcastle, where a machinist’s starting rate is R416.50 a week. There is no “one size fits all”.

Although wage rates in the clothing industry are bitterly low, Sactwu has allowed a concession that employers can pay 70% of these rates as part of a phase-in programme towards full compliance.

A few years ago we even agreed to a wage reduction of about 10% for general workers in non-metro areas such as Newcastle to help with job retention. Also we have agreed to wage measures to incentivise productivity and even led pilot projects to increase it. We have campaigned to bring government assistance and incentives to the sector.

These efforts are paying off but, despite this, some Newcastle employers are insisting that workers should be paid a minimum rate of R280 a week. They call this a living wage. Many pay even less. A clothing industry bargaining council survey conducted early last year showed that 41 out of 58 Newcastle clothing companies were paying machinists between R150 and R280 a week.

There are many companies in non-metro areas that comply with wage regulations. There are also many in metro areas, where wages are even higher. These manufacturers show that compliance is both possible and viable. In contrast, there were also many companies where we agreed to wage cuts but that subsequently closed down.

Some Newcastle employers expect us to decrease wages and compete in the world as a low-wage country. This is a short-term and impractical view. If we drop our wages, other countries will respond by dropping theirs further — a vicious downward spiral. Getting trapped in a race to the bottom is not a sustainable option.

The other option, which we support, does not focus only on wages but also includes a long-term, sustainable and human rights-based solution. It requires compliance with our laws, decent work, a focus on improving productivity, modernising work organisation, upskilling workers, improving quality, diversifying product range and ensuring reliable delivery times. This is already under way but is undermined by the opposition of some Newcastle employers.

They must legally register their organisation and join the negotiating forum that determines which wage rates apply and what industry development measures should be pursued. It does not help to scream from the sidelines.

Andre Kriel is the general secretary of Sactwu

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