A change to the law governing cooperatives in South Africa is expected to benefit the textile and clothing sector, where unions say loopholes have enabled employers to avoid paying decent wages and benefits.

The previous law treated workers in cooperatives as self-employed and exempt from paying minimum wages and conforming to labour standards – with many employers exploiting workers by turning their factories into fake cooperatives.

However, this will change with the Regulations for the Cooperative Amendment Act (2013) that came into effect on 1 April.

According to the new regulations, cooperatives must comply with labour laws and demonstrate their protection of members’ interests – a requirement that will make it difficult for false coops to exist.

“In the clothing industry alone, an estimated 15,000 workers are abused by such cooperatives that are exploiting workers,” says Andre Kriel, general secretary of IndustriAll affiliate the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers Union (SACTWU).

“They are established through threats by factory owners to retrench workers unless the workers become members of the cooperative, which remains under the control of the factory owner who decides on working hours and conditions of work. If workers raise concerns about anything they are disciplined and fired on the spot.”

According to the IndustriAll global union, garment factories in Isithebe, in the KwaZulu-Natal province, are infamous for using bogus cooperatives and paying low wages, and have been accused of human rights abuses including human trafficking.

It says that in February, 100 undocumented workers from Lesotho and Eswatini were found living in squalid conditions at textile factories in New Castle during a provincial government exercise to check business compliance with regulations. The workers lived in a small unventilated room at the factories, which were built with high walls to conceal the living conditions.