Textile and garment manufacturers in South Africa are being accused of wanting to use the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse to reduce the wages and benefits of over 75,000 workers.

IndustriAll affiliate SACTWU (Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers Union) says some employers are proposing to reduce wages by 20% and to pay less towards pension funds. In addition, the employers do not want to pay annual bonuses and shift allowances.

If implemented, the employer proposals will reverse the gains of SACTWU's living wage campaign. In March, SACTWU successfully negotiated a deal in which workers received full-pay during the early days of the country's lockdown.

To defend the gains, SACTWU has declared a wage dispute in the textile and garment sectors – which include workers employed in the production of nonwoven goods such as nappies and bedding, woven goods like textile fabrics, handbags and leather products, manufactured fibre, industrial textiles, and the laundry sector that caters for hospitals and hotels. In the home textiles sector, a settlement has been reached.

The declaration of the dispute comes after three months of failed negotiations with employer associations under the National Bargaining Council for the Clothing Manufacturing Industry. 

The employers' associations that were involved in the negotiations include the South African Apparel Association, Apparel and Textile Association of South Africa, Transvaal Clothing Manufacturing Association, Eastern Province Clothing Manufacturing Association, and the South African Clothing Manufacturers Association. SACTWU is also involved in plant-based bargaining where disputes have been declared.

"While we acknowledge that the lockdown has been difficult for our industry, we will not just sit by and meekly accept these brutal employer attacks on our members' standard of living," says Andre Kriel, SACTWU general secretary.

Due to Covid-19, negotiations took place virtually. According to SACTWU, the disputes will now go for compulsory conciliation processes.

This article was first published by the IndustriAll global union.