Letter to Cape Argus Print
Monday, 21 March 2005 12:58

 

A E Carsten puts forward the ridiculous and unsubstantiated assertion that the real reason why the clothing industry is shedding jobs is due to the existence of the National Bargaining Council for the Clothing Industry (see Argus letters, 17 March 2005).

The clothing bargaining council in the Western Cape is one of the oldest such institutions of bi-partite socio-economic dialogue in our country. Established on 28 May 1935 this bargaining council has, during its 70-year existence, successfully retained its core functions of providing dispute resolution services, establishing minimum employment conditions, and providing important self-regulated social benefits such as healthcare and retirement funding to the industry.

If Carsten‚s assertion were correct, it should hold true over the entire period of this bargaining council‚s existence. However, the empirical evidence proves otherwise. In his 1985 annual report, Mr A M Rosenberg (the then chairperson of the bargaining council) reports that employment in the industry increased by 72% during the first decade of the council‚s existence, by 72% during the second decade, by 61% during the third decade, by 47% during the fourth decade, and by 18% during the fifth decade.

In fact, over the period May 1935 to December 2004, bargaining council statistical reports show that net employment growth in the industry increased by 858%!

Carsten further contends that the bargaining council contributes to job losses by imposing unnecessary costs on Cut, Make & Trim (CMT) employers. He deliberately refrains from stating that these costs are also paid by clothing workers and that, in any event, the costs paid by employers come from the total labour cost increases negotiated each year and therefore constitutes deferred wages. Failure to pay benefit fund contributions to the bargaining council is therefore theft of workers‚ wages. It is no secret that this was recently confirmed by the Court when it held a local clothing employer criminally liable for failure to pay over benefit fund deductions. Therefore, if Carsten is advocating for non-payment of benefit fund contributions, it is tantamount to deliberately encouraging criminal activity.

The industry‚s provident fund was established in May 1953. CMT operations have always been an integral part of the history of the clothing industry. Accordingly, if his proposition that job losses are also due to benefit fund costs imposed on CMT operations by the council were true, then job losses for this reason should also have occurred throughout the history of the council. The empirical evidence shows this contention to be factually untrue. On the contrary,, bargaining council records in fact show that employment in the industry grew by 108% over the period 1953 (when the industry provident fund was first established) to end December 2004.

Carsten further asserts, again without any substantiation whatsoever, that the council‚s exemption process is a farce. „Companies do apply for exemptions, but these are rarely given, even when they appeal the outcome‰, he writes. Again, the empirical evidence proves otherwise: a recent bargaining council report shows that 319 exemption applications were lodged with the bargaining council, over the 12 month period from 1 March 2004 to 28 February 2005. Of these, 89% were approved. The report further shows that, over the same period, only 9 appeals were lodged against those exemption applications which were refused. Of these 9 appeals, 1 was granted, 1 was referred back to the exemptions committee for fresh consideration, and 7 were still pending. Carsten also conveniently forgets to mention that small employers with less than 6 employees have been granted automatic exemption from the terms of the bargaining council‚s agreements.

Carsten continue on his tirade by suggesting that social benefit fund contributions (retirement and healthcare funds) to the bargaining council constitutes an unnecessary cost to employers, do not serve a purpose, contribute to job losses, and by implication are not in the best interest of clothing workers. The evidence and our experience indicate otherwise. In 1996, clothing workers in the Western Cape embarked on the only wage-related industry wide strike in the 70 year history of the bargaining council. A core catalyst of this strike was the demand for more secure and better retirement benefits. The fact that only one wage-related industry wide strike has taken place over the entire 70-year history of the bargaining council is in itself an impressive credit to its role to facilitate a stable industrial relations environment in the industry. In any event, we do not know where Carsten gets his mandate from to speak on behalf of clothing workers. SACTWU represents more then 80% of these workers and their mandate to us is very clear: they want an even stronger bargaining council.

The declining trend in local clothing industry employment is only evident over the last 15 years of the bargaining council‚s 70 year existence. Every reasonable person knows that clothing industry job losses are caused by intensified globalisation, a strong rand, high levels of illegal and legal imports, dumping, fast-tracked tariff reductions, trade in second hand clothing, increased offshore sourcing by local retailers, China‚s accession to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), and the end of the Multi-Fibre Arrangement.

SACTWU and its members are very concerned about the job loss bloodbath in the industry. However, it seems to us that Carsten‚s campaign against the bargaining council has absolutely nothing to do with a concern about job losses, since the evidence proves no empirical link between clothing industry job losses and the existence of the bargaining council. Carsten‚s silly and slanderous campaign against the bargaining council appears to have everything to do with a desire to establish unfair competition based on cheap labour, the removal of bargaining council-provided benefits such as retirement- and healthcare funds, the promotion of a race to the bottom, and hence the encouragement of sweatshop conditions in the industry. It is sad that such a reactionary agenda is being put forward for an industry with 70% women workers, most of whom are single mothers and who support an average of 6 dependants in the poorest suburbs of the Western Cape.

 

André Kriel,

Southern African Clothing & Textile Workers‚ Union (SACTWU),

Deputy General Secretary.