Thousands of South African footwear workers are on strike for a second week, demanding a higher wage increase than is being offered by employers.

IndustriAll Global Union affiliate, the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers Union (SACTWU) and the National Union of Leather and Allied Workers, who organise the 10,000-plus workers in the sector, called for the national strike to demand living wages. They are demanding a rise of 9.5%, while employers are offering 6.25%.

Instead of engaging with the unions, some employers are said to be resorting to intimidation, which the unions have rejected as "illegal, provocative and not conducive to the promotion of sound industrial relations", according to IndustriAll.

"We support the workers' demands for living wages and for employers to consider the increasing cost of living that is eroding workers incomes," says Christina Hajagos-Clausen, IndustriAll director for the textile and garment industry. "Labour peace and social dialogue will not be possible if the employer opts for intimidation. We strongly condemn the use of guns to intimidate workers."

The labour-intensive clothing, textile, footwear and leather sectors employ more workers than any other manufacturing sector in South Africa.

According to SACTWU, the sector makes an important contribution by reducing unemployment and poverty as well as providing jobs, mainly to women, who make up about 82% of the workforce. The women are employed especially in small towns where there are fewer jobs thus promoting gender equity. Therefore, living wages will make a difference to workers and their families, unions say.

Upskilling and further training of workers is important for the sector. However, SACTWU, says the sector faces threats from customs fraud in which duty for imported goods is avoided and evaded when goods are imported through a third country among other illegal schemes sometimes even with the involvement of government officials. The goods are then smuggled into the country and sold at low cost undercutting local factories and threatening jobs.

The sector also suffers from global competition, which has seen local production being displaced by imports. However, the government-supported Clothing and Textile Competitiveness Programme (CTCP) has boosted the sector and brought some stability.