Clothing and knitwear factories who are members of the Newcastle Chinese Chamber of Commerce & Industry have hit back at the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers' Union (Sactwu) after it branded them as the "worst employers."

The union named the Chinese Chamber of Commerce as the recipient of its 'Worst Employer Award' during its 11th National Congress Awards evening in Cape Town.

It said member firms "break down, not build, decent work in the clothing industry," and pay "slave wages." According to Sactwu figures the legal minimum wage for a machinist is ZAR479.10 (US$69.6) per week, but it claims the Chamber's clothing sector members pay between ZAR180 and ZAR280 a week.

In its response the Chamber believes the union's action "further polarises South Africa's diverse ethnic population," and says it is working closely with the National Bargaining Council for the Clothing Manufacturing Industry to resolve the pay problem.

It also points out that its involvement in the clothing industry has created much needed employment in Newcastle, where its 45 clothing members employ around 2500 workers.

Disputing Sactwu data, the Chamber says its members pay between ZAR250 and ZAR550 a week for a qualified machinist - even though "the whole wage structure of the clothing industry in South Africa is wrong."

And it goes on to point out that there are currently 358 clothing companies in South Africa that are targeted by the Bargaining Council for not paying minimum wages - and that the worst paying employer in South Africa is not a Chinese company.

"Our intentions and those of our members is to find an equable solution to the current impasse over reasonable wages considering the extremely difficult and challenging environment we are faced to operate in," the Chamber says.

"The South African clothing sector has seen the closure of dozens of factories and the loss of thousands of jobs over the past few years. Can the union, the industry, the country and South African people afford further losses because of the inflexibility of finding a solution around a marginal difference in wages?