South African textile and clothing firms have been told they must move up the value chain and become more competitive by focusing on ‘fast-fashion’ short run production and quick turnaround times that target fast-changing markets.

“Government cannot save an industry; it requires a partnership that involves business and labour,” warned Ebrahim Patel, Minister of Economic Development at the annual conference of the South African Clothing and Textile Workers Union (Sactwu) in Cape Town.

The Minister, who is also a former SACTWU general secretary, added: “We cannot compete at the very bottom end of the wage market and at the same time provide decent work opportunities, so we need to re-engineer the sector for a different growth path.”

As well as a focus on fast-fashion, he said constant innovation in fashion and product offerings, a strong logistics and infrastructure hub, and upgrading technology are key to the industry’s new path.

And he called for an Accord between business and labour in the clothing, textile and footwear sector to provide a common vision for the industry. “Such an Accord must set out real commitments to productivity improvements at workplace level, reducing the wage gaps in the sector and developing a sustainable model for the future,” he said.

Also speaking at the three-day event which ended on Saturday (25 September), Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies reiterated that South African clothing and textile firms must improve their productivity if they want to compete with Asian manufacturers.

He also called for protection of the industry by requiring government departments to make sure uniforms or other textile industry goods have local manufacturing input.

Clothing exports from South Africa hit a low in 2009 at ZAR600m (US$80m), compared to its peak of ZAR2.2bn (US$290m) in 2003. And textile exports dropped from ZAR4.5bn (US$600m) in 2008 to ZAR3.9bn (US$520m) in 2009.

Among government measures to help the sector are a new Clothing and Textiles Competitiveness Programme announced in the national Budget in February this year. It will allocate ZAR1,75bn over the next three years to improving the sector’s performance.