The cacophonously coloured reams of fabric being stretched, snipped and sewn on the floor of David Chen’s factory have led a jet-setting life.
They were milled in China, spent weeks bobbing across the Indian Ocean towards Southern Africa, went through Durban’s port and wound their way over the Lesotho mountains to Maseru. Soon they will be bound for the United States, neatly folded into boxes stamped with the addresses of their exotic final destination – Walmart.
“We are making those pants you wear for exercising. What are they called again?” Chen asks, his eyes flicking over the busy factory floor, where hundreds of women are huddled over sewing machines or pressing hissing steam irons against newly-sewn garments.
“Oh yes, running tights,” he says, glancing at a heap of gaudy pink and yellow pants. “These are very popular right now, very popular. Lots of orders.”
For more than a decade and a half, Chen’s factory, TZICC, and two dozen others like it in Lesotho’s capital, have been a middle-man to the US’s capricious cheap-fashion wants, churning out sweatshirts and skinny jeans for megabrands such as Levis, Old Navy and Gap.
The garment industry in Lesotho has ballooned as a result of a trade deal signed in May 2000. The African Growth and Opportunities Act (Agoa) allows about three dozen African countries duty-free access to US markets. Today, the clothing industry is Lesotho’s largest private employer, rivalling only the country’s civil service, with more than 40 000 employees pulling down paychecks each month. Remarkably, in a country where breadwinners have historically been the migrant men trekking back and forth from South Africa’s mines, 85% of those working in factories such as Chen’s are women, according to the Lesotho Textile Exporters Association.
But Lesotho’s female-led industrial boom is also an extremely fragile one. It relies heavily on Agoa for its survival – without the import tax breaks, Lesotho wouldn’t be competitive on US markets, and the far smaller South African market accounts for about a quarter of production here.
Agoa’s provisions are themselves mercurial – dependent not only on the trade deal’s repeated renewal by the US Congress but also on Lesotho’s ability to follow the rules, which include “continual progress” towards democratisation and the protection of human rights.
Lesotho’s 2014 attempted coup and its messy aftermath have now put it on warning, and the country could lose its Agoa eligibility as soon as next year.
But the industry in Lesotho is also dependent on something – or rather someone – else: people like Chen, the east Asian factory owners and investors whose money, know-how, and global garment connections keep the industry in Maseru afloat.
Some came with Taiwanese operations that hopped the border from South Africa in the 1980s to avoid apartheid sanctions on their exports, while others have arrived more recently, hungrily trailing Agoa’s benefits.
But the result is the same: today, not a single garment factory in Lesotho is locally owned. And most of its Taiwanese operations are highly mobile, ready to jump ship as soon as Agoa does.
“I don’t think we have any choice but to relocate or just close our business” if Agoa ends, says Ricky Chang, deputy director of administration for Nien Hsing Lesotho, which runs a big denim mill and factory that employs more than 2 400 people and produces a half million units of clothing monthly. “We want to stay. We want to continue to expand our operation, to provide working opportunities to the local society, but we also want to run our business in a stable environment.”
That blunt prognosis is one shared by many factory owners. Without Agoa, they say, Lesotho’s benefits as a garment producer will be eclipsed by its weaknesses. Labour laws are stricter and union organising more common than in east Asian garment-making countries. Most importantly of all, Lesotho produces almost none of its own fabric, relying instead on fabric mills in China to ship it, which take a full month to reach Durban.
For Chen, that means his operations move too slow for the West’s fast fashion whims. By the time he has ordered fabric, assembled it and shipped it on to the US, as much as half a year may have passed.
“We need local fabric mills,” he says. “We really need them.”
Like Chang, he hopes that government can shore up interest from investors to build those mills so that he doesn’t have to leave Lesotho. He has a reason for wanting to stay that extends far beyond business: he can barely remember living anywhere else.
Chen moved to Lesotho in 1977, when he was 11. At the time, Lesotho had strong diplomatic ties to Taiwan, and was encouraging the immigration of families such as the Chens. His father soon opened a filling station and the family settled in, enrolling the children in local schools and enmeshing themselves in the small Taiwanese community in Maseru. He later went to boarding school in Bloemfontein – the first Chinese student the school had ever had, he says – and further education at the University of the Witwatersrand. When his studies were finished, he quickly went home. Apartheid South Africa “was not very good” for a young Asian man, he says. “They didn’t treat you very well.”
And so for several years after he finished school, he ran the Maseru filling station built by his father. But when Agoa was announced, he decided to make a career pivot and, with a Taiwanese partner, opened his garment factory in late 2000, just as the law’s provisions swept into place.
Today, TZICC Clothing Manufacturers exports mostly women’s pants and T-shirts, working as stockists for a wide variety of American brands including Walmart, JC Penney, Costco and The Children’s Place.
Chen flinches at the idea that his is a foreign business. “We aren’t foreigners,” he says of his family. “My children were born here. We are Basotho.”
For many workers, however, that distinction is largely irrelevant. What they see at nearly every factory here is workers of one colour working the factory floors – sewing, folding, packing and cleaning – and workers of another ordering them around.
“Sometimes you feel they don’t respect you, that they treat you like you are a child and not an adult,” says a source, speaking about one of her floor supervisors, who at most factories come from mainland China. “Some are friendly, but some are really rough.”
Others, however, say the Chinese are good teachers. After all, few of the women working here knew how to sew before they took this job. And thanks to that skill, tens of thousands have become breadwinners, supporting a large constellation of extended family on their slim monthly paychecks.
Outside of work the two groups have little interaction. Beyond a few bumbling commands (“Kapele!” as supervisors often yell “faster!”) most of the expat workers speak little Sesotho.
Unlike the Chens, they spend their off-time in factory dormitories staving off homesickness and boredom by singing karaoke and eating three Chinese-style meals a day in their canteen. Many tote around stories of colleagues robbed on the street or hijacked at gunpoint and say they worry they will be targeted for crime if they go out alone or at night. Like their Basotho colleagues, a great deal are young, ambitious and hopeful that they can build a better life for the families they left behind.
Agoa, meanwhile, was renewed last year until 2025, meaning that as long as Lesotho avoids being axed from the programme for poor governance, the textile industry has at least another nine years to live. What it does with that decade is crucial, says Nkopane Monyane, a businessman and ambassador who, for several years, was the only Basotho head of a major garment outfit in Lesotho, working as group regional manager for the international company Precious Garments.
“The US came in with the African Growth and Opportunities Act and we turned around and made it the Asian Growth and Opportunities Act,” he says. “We need to turn that around before it’s too late.”
Ryan Lenora Brown was a fellow of the Wits China-Africa Project in Lesotho.