Compromise Needed to Zip Up Clothing Industry's Woes

Article excerpt

In response to Mr Andre Kriel's letter, "Sparks is wrong" (November 18), I must correct some misconceptions the general secretary of Sactwu appears to have.

These are global competitive realities, the successes in our neighbouring countries - where the clothing industry is growing - and the bitter battle we, as employers, have fought over the past 25 years to get the union to cross the Rubicon from the land of guaranteed wages to the land where there are requirements for adequate performance from its membership in the workplace.

Globally, the past four decades have witnessed the migration of labour-intensive manufacturing from high to low labour-cost locations. China's economy consciously chose a competitive wage strategy to draw unemployed and low-skilled people into the formal economy in order to develop the country's industrial base.

With concomitant policies for skills development, massive investment in education and training, this and other economies had, within one generation, progressed up the manufacturing value chain to a point where the children of clothing factory machinists (and others) today work as technicians and engineers in high-tech global brand set-ups.

Why is this so difficult for our trade union leadership to comprehend?

It was the result of repeated rejection of our employer proposals to link wage increases to worker productivity which led to top level mediation and facilitation, and to the understanding that business as usual in collective bargaining was leading the industry to assured destruction. During the course of the annual wage negotiations immediately following this facilitation, the employers expressed their disappointment that the union was only prepared to link 0.5 percent of the agreed increase to plant-level productivity agreements. In reality, this compromise amounted to no more than a gesture.

The fact that only a few companies managed to secure such agreements was attributable to three reasons.

Firstly, the 0.5 percent was far too little to serve as a real incentive to employees. We warned the union about this. …