More than 10,000 workers from garment and textile factories in Swaziland producing for South Africa and the US have taken mass action over low wages.

The workers, employed across five factories in Nhlangano, took action last week after some workers were reportedly locked in a factory. According to the IndustriAll Global Union, police were called in with batons and gunshots were fired to disperse the angry workers who shut down the town in protest.

Tempers were said to have flared when negotiations deadlocked, and the Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration Commission declared an unresolved dispute. Other textile companies, like Fashion Enterprises, are also refusing to engage unions on the matter, IndustriAll says.

The textile companies want the negotiations to take place at the wages council — a tripartite body that regulates conditions of employment. However, IndustriAll Global Union affiliate, the Amalgamated Trade Unions of Swaziland (ATUSWA), says it will not be intimidated by such action, as the wages council is there to provide only a wage base and does not replace collective bargaining between workers and employers.

ATUSWA says the workers are not earning living wages and face hardships.

"The employers must know that workers feel cheated and neglected by them and the government," says Wander Mkhonza, the secretary general of ATUSWA. "The cost of living is increasing while wages remain low, forcing workers to live in poverty. Therefore, we are calling for a joint negotiations council in the garment and textile sector. Unfortunately, this proposal is not getting support from the employers and the government. We are horrified that the government does not support collective bargaining 18 years after the passing of the Industrial Relations Act."

Paule France Ndessomin, IndustriAll regional secretary for Sub Saharan African, adds: "Our call is for textile companies in eSwatini to pay living wages. It is unacceptable for workers to live in poverty while they are going to work."

eSwatini garment and textile sector supplies garments to South Africa and the US, to which the country is a signatory to the US trade act, the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act.