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A reply to Trade Unions, the state and 'casino capitalism' in South Africa's Clothing Industry PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, 04 October 2016 12:28
A reply to ‘Trade Unions, the state and 'casino capitalism' in South Africa's Clothing Industry’ by Nicoli Nattrass & Jeremy Seekings published in Review of African Political Economy, December 2015

By John Copelyn, May 2016 (an edited version of this article appeared in the South African Labour Bulletin, Vol 40 No 3, June/July 2016)

Nattrass and Seekings (hereafter “N&S”) have penned a highly critical piece on Sactwu, attacking virtually everything it is and does, including its trade policies, its affiliation to Cosatu, its investment company and in particular its intervention into Seardel.

This response contests many of the assumptions they make about the union and its approach to the world but perhaps more importantly seeks to shed some light on the collapse of the largest clothing and textile corporation in the country (Seardel) and the union’s attempts to rescue it from liquidation.

1. Summary of the main N&S thesis:

The N&S article starts by making the point that Cosatu and several of its member unions have lost their edge and are no longer organizations representing the interests of their members. Three allegations are put up to explain this:

1.1 Cosatu's alliance with the governing party has neutralized its capacity to represent the political interests of workers as it used to do prior to the advent of democracy;

1.2 Unions have become embroiled in "corporatist structures" particularly industry wide bargaining councils which, according to the article, are creations of post Apartheid labour legislation;

1.3 The success of the unions resulted in them paying many "perks" to their officials which have distanced the union from its members.

These factors are cobbled together to explain the split in Cosatu's ranks between militant trade unions who can no longer take the degeneration in the trade union movement represented by Cosatu and are on a path to forming a new federation, that presumably will be far more responsive to workers than the contaminated Cosatu style of leadership.

The split in Cosatu's ranks implicitly requires each affiliate of Cosatu to choose whether it wishes to remain with the degenerate federation moving increasingly out of step with worker interests or whether it wants to leave Cosatu and follow the real interests of its members.

All this macro analysis is cited with its well documented academic trail of supposed authority, to demonstrate a key proposition that Sactwu chose to stay in the Cosatu stable for a simple reason: It preferred to abandon its real mandate to serve worker interests in favour of other interests. Without pausing to check whether the dichotomy the article sets up has any basis in reality at all, the authors plunge into the heart of the point they are burning to make:

"Sactwu's hesitancy to burn its bridges with the ANC accorded with its evolving relationship to both state and capital."

The extraordinary degree of the treachery to its mandate being perpetrated by Sactwu is caused by two cardinal sins.

The first is its "heavy dependence" on the state. Through this indispensable crutch, the union has been able to secure "control of non unionized employment through wage regulation" as well as procure "industrial policies that facilitate higher wages for its members"

The second is occasioned by its "deepening business interests" which depend on the state "rigging the odds in its favour" - "Casino capitalism" at its most grotesque.

Just in case the above isn't sufficient to appall the reader, the professors add the following addition from their research. These "deepening business interests reinforced its preference for relatively high wage and capital intensive production models that produced fewer but better paid jobs."

2. A few general observations:

While in general I would like to focus this response on the N&S critique of the union's investment in Seardel it is unavoidable to respond to some of the other analysis offered by N&S.

2.1 Is it true as N&S insists, that Sactwu remaining in Cosatu reveals its dependence on the ANC rather than remaining true to its mandate to fearlessly represent the interests of its members?

The launch of Cosatu a little over thirty years ago was the result of a determined effort by trade unionists of many differing political shades to put aside their differences in the interests of trade union unity. It's fragmentation today is not part of the story of workers regaining their lost voice. It is a pitiful statement that union leaders rather than workers, have come to the view that their differences are more important than trade union unity.

I spent twenty years in unions from 1974-1994 trying, along side others, to pull disparate unions in the same industry into a single non-racial organization dedicated to protecting workers from abuse. In the end we managed to merge six racially and regionally divided unions into a single organization - Sactwu.

In the same period we spent years trying to unite unions into a single non racial trade union federation. We started as TUACC, formed Fosatu and finally united under the banner of Cosatu.

The leadership of Sactwu that went through all that knows better than anyone how difficult it will be to repair the damage being done to the worker movement and its ability to influence the way in which South Africa develops from here. Far from the "new" federation representing a simple return of union organization to its grass roots, it is far more likely be characterized along side Cosatu, primarily by the fact that they represent disunity.

By saying this I don't mean to blame Numsa or even AMCU for this collapse of unity. Numsa didn't walk out of Cosatu. It was expelled. That was a devastating blow to the future of Cosatu being the centre of trade union unity. Sactwu did not favour that expulsion, nor does it hold that differences between trade union leadership in relation to political outlook should be the basis of which unions should be admitted to Cosatu.

The fact that the union does not wish to participate in splintering Cosatu has absolutely nothing to do with the reasons cited by the authors. Rather it has everything to do with resisting the fragmentation of the trade union movement.

2.2. Has Sactwu lost connectivity with its membership base and if so is this the consequence of offering its officials too many perks?

N&S sets up a completely undocumented accusation that Sactwu has lost its connection with workers, resulting in its members becoming ungovernable.

Where unions become disconnected from their members, expressions of worker militancy spill into the open despite the union rather than through it. The authors boldly assert this phenomenon is the consequence of the many "perks" offered to union officials.

The critique of Sactwu offered in this regard is most unfair. To the best of my knowledge, there has been  no militancy of clothing and textile workers whatsoever outside of struggles in which the union has been very much a part. Nor have splinter unions, so characteristic of union weakness in other industries, been a characteristic of clothing and textile worker organization. I am not aware of any criticism whatsoever from any section of the union about the salaries of officials. nor have they changed in any remarkable way over time. They remain at perfectly inoffensive levels.

2.3. Are the efforts of Sactwu to reduce wage differentials in different parts of the country through a national bargaining council a proof of a contemptible reliance on the state?

N&S take great umbrage at the fact that Sactwu has sought to regulate the wages of the clothing industry nationally by the creation of a national bargaining council. This strategy of the union they take to be further evidence of the contemptible growing dependence of the union on the state.

Despite the authors' assertion that Bargaining Councils arose after the introduction of the 1995 Labour Relations Act, they have been in existence for a hundred years. The clothing industrial councils were in general created in the 1920s or early 1930s and have been fundamental to the setting of wages in that industry ever since.

Ironically the union held up as the model of worker representivity, not subject to any of the criticisms N&S throw disparagingly at "Cosatu", namely Numsa, has its entire capacity to mobilize its membership centred in national bargaining councils. This was as true on 1st December 1985 when Cosatu was formed, as it continues to be today.

Developing a national bargaining council is not a statement of dependence on the state that is available to unions which are involved in alliances with the ANC. It is the consequence of a century of trade union struggles greatly valued by unions of every age and stage in our country's history.  The notion that the only way to create jobs in an industry is to allow some areas to undercut agreed labour rates of more established areas is simply one of the most anti-union propositions one might hope to advance.

The N&S elaboration that the heretical deviation of which Sactwu is allegedly guilty, demonstrates a degenerate "heavy dependence on the state" and "deepening business interests" is simply not true.

Worse I feel it is a denial of the reality of Apartheid's affect on the clothing industry since the 1970s.

2.4. Is Sactwu's commitment to a National Bargaining Council a commitment to a "higher wage fewer jobs" strategy in direct conflict with the interests of its members.

The next broadside attack on Sactwu's outlook offered by the N&S critique relates to the union's alleged "preference" for higher wages and fewer jobs. This critique arises from a fundamental difference the authors have with Sactwu's efforts to address historical structural imbalances in the sector.

In essence the authors object to efforts made by Sactwu to compel employers in Newcastle and other such areas to raise the wages of their employees. Essentially they assert it would have been far wiser to leave these wages at the level they were as this would have allowed more jobs to be created. They postulate that the wage levels were thoughtfully determined by "progressive technocrats" working for the state after 1994.

To get some historical perspective on the problem, perhaps one should start with the basic effects of government policy on the development of the clothing and textile industry over the last two decades of Apartheid.

In that period, government dreamt up a key industrial policy aimed at preventing the "influx" of Black workers to cities. This was the development of "border industries". Certain areas bordering on "homelands" were to be developed as industrial areas with enormous subsidies in an effort to ensure that development of labour intensive industrial sectors would be skewed towards these areas. These subsidies included tax breaks, free rentals in state built factories for several years, and a subsidy of 95% of wages up to a certain maximum level. If employers chose to increase the level of wages above this level they were on their own!

In this crude manner, the state drove wages of workers in these areas to their lowest possible levels. These areas were developed outside the jurisdictions of the Industrial councils and were maintained as areas for cheap African labour with little room for trade unions by virtue of the racial limitations on membership of registered unions. The exclusion of African workers from registered trade unions rendered it impossible for such unions ever to create enough pressure on employers to grant union rights to their workers or to resist the depression of the level of the social wages payable there.

These were not conditions imposed by "progressive technocrats". They were the most grotesque racist manipulations of the labour market to the great disadvantage of workers, by people who were totally indifferent to their suffering.

With time these became cesspools of draconian labour practices such as employing female workers on night shifts, locking them into the factory so the owner wouldn't have to waste money on hiring security workers at night. There were cases of workers being trapped in these plants when a fire broke out and several cases of pregnant women who couldn't get out of the factory when they went into labour. There were several stories of workers being physically beaten as a disciplinary measure. Wage levels were set at below half those of urban areas and invariably unscrupulous employers would pay rates even lower than that, all with the connivance or total disregard for worker rights by the state.

I don't think that the N&S assertions about smart government technocrats trying to develop a "low wage high employment" model in these areas after 1994 is helpful. In truth the work done by these workers relies on orders placed by the very retailers who previously used to order clothing from factories in the traditional areas of clothing manufacture like Durban and Cape Town.

More depressingly the weakness of these utterly fragmented and disorganized clothing manufacturers resulted in those retailers devouring every bit of the additional margin that manufacturers might have made through the cheap labour practices imposed on their workers.

It seems to me in short that every garment made in these areas undercut the price paid for identical garments manufactured in metro areas and in consequence virtually every job created in these areas was a job destroyed in some other area. Every cent saved through cheap labour practices went to the retailers which grew and grew as the manufacturers yielded every cent they underpaid their workers.

The cost of labour in many manufacturing operations is around 10-12% of the cost of manufacture. In the clothing industry it is over 30%. The profit margin on mass manufactured clothing virtually never exceeded 5% of the cost of manufacture anywhere, any time in our country. The consequence of allowing such enormous disparities in wages of workers in different local areas allowed non-metro factories to undercut metro prices by at least 10% forcing them to operate at a loss unless they moved. It is the projection of Rev Malthus on steroids - a race to absolute poverty without even waiting for the population to grow!

For the authors to suggest that it was in some way wrong for the union to create a national bargaining council as quickly as it could and to set its sails firmly on limiting the disparities in wage levels of competing local firms, is nothing short of diabolical.

To postulate that it would have been better to rely on government technocrats developing a new "model" to protect the interests of clothing workers, could be the sort of idea that might come from the pen of a consultant to the retail industry. However, to simultaneously postulate that Sactwu's problem is that it has "too great a dependence on relations with the state" requires a special blend of such interests wrapped tightly around a Houdini. How can the authors offer up the advice that the union should have relied on the guidance of "progressive government technocrats" to set wages through wage boards while clinging fiercely to a damning criticism of unions that "access state power"?

What is truly amazing is the total indifference of N&S to the facts of the wage differentials in metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas. While it goes on for pages about the "high wage" strategy of the union and how this eliminated jobs in the "low wage" centres like Newcastle, nowhere does it ever deal with the actual wages of the workers involved. I say this even though it includes a table reflecting the wages earned by qualified metro machinists, as its authors seem simply not to have internalized its content in any way. The table reveals that the current wage of a qualified machinist with two years experience in Newcastle in 2016 is only R3000 a month and in CapeTown is only R4000 a month.

This is the “high road” that the authors find so offensive. It is the result of the fifteen year struggle of Sactwu to raise Newcastle rates in relation to metro rates. Over this period the gap has narrowed from a 50% discount on Metro rates to a 25% discount.

While the discount is finally approaching a realistic level, the issue that remains is whether this is the much denigrated "high road”. How much less should workers earn if Sactwu relied on the "progressive Government technocrats" so ardently urged by the authors of N&S?

Unavoidably, what N&S is actually saying, is that the right way to have eliminated the extraordinary wage gaps that were artificially imposed by Apartheid on outlying areas and so mercilessly exploited by retailers, was to have allowed all clothing wages to fall to that level. The "right" way for workers to deal with more and more manufacturing moving from major centres to  outlying areas should simply have been to exchange their "high" wages (currently R4000 a month) for half that.

If truth be told, the power behind the throne is not the state. It is a handful of retailers that dominate the conditions of manufacture and constantly scour the world for cheaper manufactured product. Essentially N&S says the best course of action is simply to surrender.

I can't help feeling this armchair advice is all just too glib to be of any use to any bona fide trade union struggling to best represent the long term interests of its members.

2.5. South African Government policy in relation to the clothing and textile industries.

Globalization has exposed our manufacturing industry to being undercut by the great clothing exporters of the world. South Africa's longstanding policies in respect of the clothing and textile industries from the Apartheid period involved three fundamentals:

2.5.1 Border Areas:

First was an obsession with the location of places of work which I have dealt with above, aimed at limiting the influx of African people to the major cities. While the decentralization benefits disappeared after 1994, the key scar remained the totally depressed wages paid to workers in these areas.

2.5.2 Protectionism:

Second was protecting the industry against imports to ensure its growth in the local market. It was generally well understood that this was an industry which could create the maximum number of manufacturing jobs for the least amount of money per job and its protection was fundamental to the country's industrialization.

N&S appears to suggest that it is a disgrace to "protect" local jobs against globalization. It seems to conceive of our failure to be a low cost producer solely as a statement of domestic inefficiency that should never be resolved by protectionism. I think this is too limited a view. There are many factors that go into other countries lowering the cost of producing clothing including the subsidizing  of raw materials, cheaper electricity, ensuring worker transport costs are at a minimum, producing long runs of the same garment, aside from managing foreign exchange rates like China does, and providing special export incentives specifically targeting South Africa.

It is highly unlikely that South African clothing manufacturers will ever be the cheapest producers in the world. Unless one wants the industry decimated, one has to protect it to some degree. It's one thing to say our protections were too high in the 1980s. It's quite another to say there should be none at all.

At the end of the Apartheid period, SA tariffs on importing clothing were negotiated at the WTO to fall from 120% to 45% over several years. In their wisdom, both Trevor Manuel and Alec Erwin sliced these tariffs three years in advance of that required by the WTO, causing complete mayhem in the industry in the period 1994 - 2005. Added to this, they abandoned clothing tariffs of some 35% between South Africa and neighbouring SADC countries over the six years from 2000- 2006, facilitating an avalanche of production shifting from South Africa to such states, paying about a quarter of the rates of South African metro workers. Literally tens of thousands of South African clothing workers lost their jobs. In cavalier fashion, the new government virtually threw the industry under a bus.

Aside from the level of duties payable at law, the key to the viability of all such protections is their enforcement. South Africa's capacity to enforce even the lowest level of duty has degenerated remarkably over the last twenty years. Despite imported goods flooding into the country, duties collected thereon are a small fraction of what they should be. It is utterly commonplace for people to import containers of clothing at nominal prices without being challenged; likewise it is common-place for goods to be imported via South Africa, allegedly bound for Lesotho or some other SADC country and either “fall off the truck” unnoticed before getting to the border or are smuggled back into the country without import duty from there. We have seen the mushrooming of massive cheap clothing bazaars in every major city across the country. All of the goods traded there are imported and all are sold at prices which indicate no duty could have been paid. Nevertheless this is done without attracting any apparent interest from law enforcement agencies.

All this devastation is of course of no interest to N&S which holds that wage cuts would have resolved the whole problem.

2.5.3 Export Assistance:

These difficulties cut across the third state commitment to the industry referred to by N&S, namely that of trying to foster the sector as an export industry through a duty credit system whereby duty credits could be earned on exports. In turn these could be set off against duties payable for the importation of textiles and clothing.

The state spent billions of Rand on this system despite union opposition for many years. N&S blithely quote amounts credited to Seardel under this system as proof of the futility of the efforts made by the state to prop up an uncompetitive industry. They juxtapose  this with a press comment by a Cosatu spokesperson which suggests that the state assistance was abused for management cars and bonuses. Somehow this unbearably low level of enquiry is then left to suggest that Sactwu policies and the union’s total indifference to the long term interests of its industry are the root cause of the demise of Seardel in particular and the industry in general. Such argument is not insightful and obfuscates understanding the wastefulness of a poor choice of state policy.

The DCC scheme was riddled with corruption. Middlemen purportedly exported millions of items of clothing under the scheme. In reality a small quantity of goods were "round tripped" several times, with the same goods simply smuggled back into the country and "re-exported" for further credit. Other scams involved goods manufactured in China being imported by Malawi where a small assembly line attached "Made in Malawi" labels and exported them to SA as items of clothing locally manufactured there.

Still other scams centred themselves on the simple solution of creating counterfeit Duty Credit Certificates. The genuine certificates were issued by the Department of Trade and Industry, but for years there was no way in which Customs and Excise could check the authenticity of DCC's claimed as the two departments had no IT System linking them.

Sactwu and Seardel (post the take over of the business) were at the heart of a great many initiatives jointly with investigative units at SARS to expose the extensive corruption but no matter the level of proof thereof, no charges were ever pursued by the NPA. In truth the NPA seems more likely to charge the Minister of Finance and anyone attached to the former SARS investigating units than any importer not paying duties.

N&S fails to deal with the effect of the DCCs on the clothing industry in any significant way. It doesn't seem to care whether any sustainable export industry was ever created by the system. All that seems important to them is the "principle" that the union should not be able to influence state policies affecting the industry in which their members work.

Nevertheless Sactwu finally succeeded in persuading the state to move away from the utterly wasteful system of the DCCs to the great benefit of the part of the industry interested in operating lawfully.

Currently the DCC scheme has been replaced by a production incentive which offers local producers a credit for proven local production in compliance with tax and labour laws of the country. These credits can be claimed as financial assistance in meeting the costs of capital projects of the factories concerned to modernize production which are approved by the IDC. They are not tradable and the only way to claim them, is to prove the qualifying investment has been effected by the manufacturer concerned.

Is this a better and more far sighted form of support to industry? Unquestionably.

What possible gripe can the authors have with the union using its knowledge and skill to guide and pressure the state into the improvement of its policies in relation to supporting the industry?

3. The case of the union's involvement in the rescue of Seardel Workers. The so called "casino capitalists" at work.

In 2008 the largest textile and clothing manufacturer in the country became insolvent. It was rescued by Sactwu from the jaws of the liquidators. Its efforts were not without pain and it succeeded in preserving only half of the jobs involved.

3.1 The N&S take on the matter:

N&S appears to be fundamentally critical of the union's intervention into the Seardel Group. More than that it is utterly contemptuous of the fact that the union had the capacity to intervene where no one else had any intention to tread.

It spends some time developing a totally fictitious point that the union obstructed a foreign company in taking over the Group's central textile factories as a going concern, and ultimately frustrated a possible transaction which would have avoided the closure of Frame "by refusing to allow further retrenchments" until the unnamed "Asian investor" walked away. In this diabolically cynical manner the suggestion is left hanging that, if not for the union and its stupidity, the factory would have been saved.

Likewise in relation to the Group's clothing operations, N&S suggests that if not for the foolishness of union resistance to a "new wage model" which Seardel, among others, had been trying unsuccessfully to introduce into the country, the bankruptcy of the Seardel clothing operations would have been avoided.

3.2  Some simple facts about how the  union originally became involved with Seardel

N&S notes that the Seardel Group moved much of its manufacturing out of Durban to Ladysmith to take advantage of the cheaper wage levels there from 2004 (which contradicts everything else it says about the cause of the Group's troubles), and then pops up with this:

"Sactwu responded by purchasing shares in Seardel (attaining 19,3% of the N-ordinary shares in 2005) and Copelyn was installed on the board."

The innuendo is that the union planned a shareholder take-over of the group in order to stop it moving production to Ladysmith.

The truth of the matter is totally different.

Actually Sactwu was invited by Aaron Searll to acquire non voting shares in his family controlled listed holding company via a BEE consortium. The reason for Aaron's interest in such a consortium was simply to raise capital in the course of his bid to acquire sole control of the Frame Group after he fell out with his former partner Roy Sable.

The consortium was led by Cyril Ramaphosa who became chairman of the company for a while but soon realized the business was still being run as a family business totally controlled by Aaron, the holder of 51% of the voting shares. This resulted in several issues whereby Cyril was called upon to intervene in an effort to separate "personal from corporate" in the business. A year or so later Cyril tired of the effort and sold off his shares to the only BEE grouping interested in the company, namely the union investment company. The union had quietly gone along with Aaron because it believed he was more likely to grow the business than any other contender for its control.

After Cyril resigned, Aaron invited me to sit on his board, not as chairperson as Cyril had been, but simply as a non executive member. His approach was based on his feeling that this would give the union a sense of participation without it actually having a seat on his board, which he felt was a step too far.

3.3 The transformation of Sactwu's involvement in Seardel.

Seardel operated the Frame factories at a loss for quite some time after the removal of the protective duties over the textile industry. The executives of the Group seemed entirely relaxed about this fact and gave everyone on the board an impression it would shortly be "back in the black".

At some point in 2008, the banks suddenly stopped payment on the transfer of the monthly salaries of all Frame monthly paid workers. Not unsurprisingly this resulted in them going on strike. The monthly paid workers were not unionized and I was totally unaware of their problem or action, which was not publicized at all.

The regular quarterly board meeting which I attended happened to be scheduled for about three days later. The issue was not even on the agenda! It was simply raised as a query under "General" at the end of the meeting by Walter Simeoni, the managing director of the Frame Group. His query however created total confusion. The long time CEO and controlling shareholder said he was completely baffled as to how this had happened. Backed up by his financial director he asserted the group had over a billion rand worth of unused banking facilities. He claimed that in all his years of being in business he had never been so outrageously mistreated by a bank.

In response to my alarmed questioning, it was eventually said that the group had exceeded a particular facility and had failed to reduce its borrowing there-under despite demand by the bank concerned to do so. It was unclear whether the unused facilities were with the same bank or not but it was believed the banks were trying to compel the company to grant the banks security over particular assets of the Group which it was not willing to do.

More persistence eventually resulted in a statement by the executives that all three of the major banks involved with the group were coming to see the company that afternoon to discuss the situation.

An impression was given that the CEO had summoned them all to give them a good dressing down about the disastrous mess they had caused.

I requested to be allowed to stay for this meeting. Totally out of character the CEO agreed that I could. Up to that point I had never been allowed anywhere close to the business other than attending its quarterly board meetings.

At the meeting with the banks it became perfectly obvious that the banks had already formed a consortium and had called the meeting to advise the group they were putting it into liquidation forthwith.

The "unused facilities" turned out to be totally fictitious and the banks had reams of correspondence requiring the company to stick within its borrowing limits which it had systematically ignored or failed to do.

Since I was the only person saying anything, the conversation quickly degenerated into one between me and the representatives of the banks with the management of the company sitting utterly dejected and silent.

At the end of the meeting it was clear that the only way the whole group would avoid being placed in liquidation forthwith, with a consequent loss of all its jobs, would be if someone would commit at least R200m in cash, back ranked behind the banks, within 24 hours.

Seardel arrived at its moment of doom without the non-executives on the board having had the slightest idea that the group was in any serious difficulty. To be honest I don't really believe the executives actually understood what had happened to the Group. Unquestionably they were in no position to assure anyone of any facts about the group and it was a certainty that the banks would not be hanging around while someone conducted a due diligence into the business. They had absolutely no confidence such process would lead to any money being put into the business.

Purely on the basis of my persistence, the banks reluctantly agreed to take no further action until we met again the following morning.

I went off to discuss the matter with Sactwu. As pointed out by N&S, the group employed some 15 000 workers, some 15% of the industry nationally. Admittedly it was known that the group had decided to close the Frame plant at Ladysmith and that about 1000 workers were in the final stages of retrenchment. Nevertheless the remainder was an exceptionally large number of union members.

The outcome of a feverish set of consultations and decisions in both union and HCI structures was a decision by the union to lend HCI the R200m needed as a completely ring fenced loan secured only by whatever interest it acquired in Seardel, in exchange for HCI agreeing to commit management time to a desperate rescue mission.

I'm not sure what N&S is trying to suggest about the union and "casino capitalism". It seems it is suggesting the union is not really involved in actual business risks and all the rules are rigged in its favour, leaving it in the happy financial position of making pots of money without really doing much.

In reality there is not another investor in the country who would have tried to rescue Seardel from closure because of the ghastly risks involved and the remoteness of the up side.

Why did Sactwu do it? Does it show the union is now embedded in inappropriate relations with capital, with the ANC or Government? Or is it simply that the union has lifted the level of its capacity to help protect its members and that its motivation is solely in that space?

One thing is certain - I never heard a single question being asked by the union leadership about how much money it could make, nor whether it might earn any brownie points with the ANC or the state. The only thing it appeared to be concerned about was whether it could prevent the wholesale retrenchment of its membership in the group.

3.4 HCI takes over Seardel:

The next morning I negotiated with the banks the terms on which we would release the money to them: We would ensure a rights issue was conducted at Seardel to raise more equity; we would ensure Seardel put up all its assets as security to the banks, including a pledge of debtors; first mortgages on property; liens over stock; notarial bonds over all movable property including all plant and equipment, provided there would be no covenants on any debt for two years and we would be given a free hand to try to turn the business around in that time, without the banks intervening therein nor seeking to foreclose on the Group's debt facilities.

While our attorneys and those of the banks worked furiously on drafting all this, we negotiated with the controlling shareholder the terms of the rights issue. At the time there were some 90m shares in issue, most of which were N-shares. They were trading at about R6 per share. We offered to underwrite the rights issue at 50c a share placing a value on the existing equity of some R45m provided we were assured we could acquire control of the group in the process.

It is hard to imagine a transaction of this nature. Essentially the organization representing workers at Seardel earning less than R3-4000 a month was investing R200m in the company; leaving R45m for existing shareholders, namely its founder and various financial institutions that had supported him, in order to preserve as much of the defunct company as could be rescued.

The long and short of all this is that we bought ourselves control of the company and 24 months in which to turn the business around.

3.5 Closing down Charmfit:

We then started trawling through the devastation of the company. We discovered that Charmfit, which employed a thousand workers manufacturing Triumph bras on an evergreen licence, had sold the licence back to Triumph for R32m the previous year. Arrangements in the group allowed for some ten per cent of this amount to be paid out to the retiring manager as a bonus and gave the Group an extra R32 million profit for the 2007 year which allowed it to partially hide the extent of its losses.

The sale agreement provided that the group would continue to manufacture for the holder for three years after the licence disposal which gave the retiring manager time to depart without taking any responsibility for the disaster which lay ahead. We were left to beg the new licence holders to allow Seardel workers at the plant to continue to do the production beyond this point. We virtually never received another order and all these workers had to be retrenched.

3.6 Closure of the heart of the Frame Group

In the case of the textile manufacturing plants of the Frame Group at New Germany, a budget was presented which made assumptions no one had any confidence could be achieved: For example, production efficiencies were budgeted to rise from 62% to 90% now that the union investment company was taking over; customers would grant a 5% price increase though there was no hint that such an increase was plausible. Nevertheless the budget provided a R45m loss for the year. When management were asked to prepare a scenario where the company might become cash positive (though not necessarily profitable after depreciation) over a five year period they were unable to do more than hope to reduce the cash burn rate to R10m a year if all these unlikely assumptions persisted for the five year period.

By this time it is true that Ebrahim Patel and Rob Davies were in cabinet and that the IDC  as well as various other state controlled programs aimed at preserving industrial capacity of the country reported to them.

In HCI we all racked our brains to try to think how to save this capacity. The New Germany factories alone filled some 190 000 square metres of especially designed factory space. The replacement cost of its plant and equipment was valued at a figure well north of a billion rand, apart from hundreds of millions of rands of stock and debtors.

Nevertheless the projected losses of the Frame factories was so large the Seardel Group could not survive them.

We proposed a new ownership structure with the IDC taking a quarter; the Kwazulu Regional Development Bank and the NEF each taking a quarter and Seardel remaining with a quarter. We offered to contribute the premises rent free for a period as well as placing only a fire sale value for the plant of R200m. We offered either to continue to manage the plants or to allow the other shareholders to replace such management if they felt it beneficial to the company. We offered R169m in severance to pay off workers. The new proposed company would then hire as many of the workers for the new operation as it chose and on whatever terms it decided.

There never was another party, Asian or otherwise, that expressed the slightest interest in maintaining the plant as an operating plant in South Africa. The only expressions of interest ever made were to buy sections of the plant with the intent of dismantling it and shipping it out to either Pakistan or Bangladesh.

In all fairness we could not think of a better offer than the one we tabled to keep the plant open without sinking the whole group, but ultimately we were unable to agree on the proposal. The IDC was very reluctant and the other proposed entities were only prepared to come in if the IDC was strongly in favour of a rescue mission. The reason for its reluctance may have been because of a conflict of interest with Prilla Mills and Da Gama Textiles which were direct competitors of Frame and hoped to fill their plants if Fame collapsed. The IDC is the primary investor in these factories. Alternatively it may simply have been that it felt we were flogging a dead horse.

Ultimately, the reality of a capital intensive business doing major beneficiation work but only able to command selling prices 28% higher than the cost of its raw material, could never be a viable business. The collapse of all protections for the industry left it absolutely vulnerable to every twist of business cycles. Its raw materials were committed months in advance in dollars and its revenue was receivable six to nine months later in Rands. It was required to make a wide array of fabric, no matter how small the local order book was for it, or accept that fabric would be imported. The fact that it could never be assured of continuous production made it impossible to run its plant 168 hours a week, despite the capital intensive nature thereof and the fact that its competitors around the world were doing precisely that with similar plant.

As a result of the state ultimately declining to become our partner, we closed down most of the business, saving what we could such as the knitting, non-woven and polypropylene divisions, as well as moving some cotton looms to Worcester. For the rest we dismantled and sold off the plant to companies which shipped it to Asia. We then redeveloped the property as an industrial park which brings in a substantial rent from third parties.

As is customary with failure, there was a certain amount of the blame game. For example, the technocrats at the IDC had suggested we were over valuing the plant we were offering to the proposed joint venture which made it difficult for them to accept our proposals. Nevertheless we received more than that amount through the sales as the dismantled plant was sold off. All said and done, we all failed to save the industrial capacity and dashed the hopes of its workers who expected better from us. I hang my head at that fact.

I hope I am not missing any suggestion that N&S may be seeking to offer, but I truly don't think it offers a single suggestion that might have saved even one of these jobs.

3.7 HCI Battles to Save Clothing Jobs:

These closures still left the group with several thousand workers in its clothing divisions. We succeeded in selling off some plants, including Lesotho, Darling and Malmsbury as going concerns, leaving us the Cape Town and Ladysmith factories. By this time the state had transformed the assistance program to the industry. The DCC system gave way to one where tax and labour law compliant local producers were to be assisted with grants in respect of capital projects they undertook, to improve productivity of their operations. While it was no more expensive for the state than the DCC system, it was not subject to middle men syphoning off benefits without improving local production, nor was it something that retailers could buy at half price to reduce the cost of their imports. It was a genuinely constructive state program.

N&S seems to care only that the program was pushed for by the union and to see no positive significance in the policy change. I, on the other hand, see no negative significance to the fact that the union formulated a better industrial policy and see only positive benefit to the industry and its employees through such a change. Had it been implemented in 1994, which it should have been, we would have saved far more of our precious manufacturing jobs. Alas, for Seardel it was too late.

We tried our best to turn our clothing factories around. We made mistakes. We were insufficiently experienced. Perhaps these failures were decisive. I don't want to be defensive about our failures.

A tragic moment was presenting our key customer with a proposal to commit to sourcing R150m worth of garments through the central metro clothing factory that remained -Intimate Apparel - for the following year. This commitment was fundamental to facilitate it operating at optimum efficiency. It would also have allowed it to break even.

We put it to the customer that it could not meet the wage disparity of non-metro rates unless the factory was fully loaded with work. It employed 800 workers and had made the most dramatic strides forward in its efforts to be a world class producer.

The customer however was not prepared to make the commitment to sourcing locally from a metro factory and insisted it had to reserve the right to source garments from cheap production units like Ladysmith, or Lesotho which it now regarded as "local" procurement. It had to retain the right to import if the Rand strengthened against other currencies and as a result would only commit to a third of the volumes needed to sustain the factory. We had no other customers of substance at this factory.

We agonized but I knew there was no future in being a wholly dependent supplier of unbranded clothing to a party who cared so little about our future. It had grown so indifferent to our fate and so confident about our willingness to absorb more losses while it basked in the support of its customers, who simply didn't care where the clothes they were purchasing were made nor under what circumstances.

We drew a line in the sand and closed Intimate Apparel as we had said we would have to do without their commitment to our future. Unquestionably the customer was shocked. It never believed we would actually close the plant, but Intimate Apparel joined the many, many other metro factories that are no more.

Did we do enough? Failure says we did not and I judge myself that way.

Nevertheless I offer the following detail of our feverish efforts to save the heart of the clothing manufacturing capacity of Cape Town. Up close it felt so different to the analysis offered by N&S.

3.8 What Failure looks like viewed up close:

This is a story of the “strappy”.

This is a popular ladies wear garment and the fate of its production at Seardel is typical of the fate of much of our efforts with the production of other garments.

In 2000 Seardel required 0,37 metres of fabric and took 8 minutes of machinist labour to produce. We produced 440000 of these garments at a price of R34,90 a garment.

Over the next ten years we succeeded in halving the number of minutes allowed for its manufacture, which is to say labour productivity was doubled. N&S suggest the only way this might happen is with piece work but we succeeded with other methods of monitoring production albeit that workers were paid on a time basis. While the factory cost of labour escalated from R0,92 to R1.65 a minute over the decade, the labour cost of the garment was reduced by 9,5% through increased efficiency.

We likewise managed to reduce the fabric wastage, thereby reducing the amount of fabric used per garment from 0,37m to 0,32m, a saving of some 13,5%. While the cost of fabric over the period escalated from R26,52 per metre to R32,91per metre (24%) we managed to contain this escalation to 7,3% over the decade by saving fabric wasted.

Taken together the effect of these labour costs and raw materials used is that we succeeded in holding costs to the same Rand value primarily through massive increases in labour efficiency for a whole decade.

By 2011, however, our selling price was down to R29,75 and our volumes were down to 205000.

Part of our responsibilities included attaching the price tag for the retailer showing the price the garment would be sold in its shops. It retailed in the stores of the same customer at  R69,95 across the ten years. The retailer grew the number of its outlets, and in consequence the volume of its strappy sales steadily each year.

The consumer paid the same price for the garment for the decade which may appear to be a great contribution to avoiding inflation but it still masks who paid for that price stability and who systematically increased its take.

Effectively the retailer widened its margin on the garment by 15% over the ten years at our expense as well as imported half its requirements or more. Seardel on the other hand was reduced to producing garments at a growing loss despite all improvements.

That's what failure looks like up close. When one stops being cute, what is the answer to this?

I'm happy to hang my head and admit we didn't improve fast enough. Workers lost their jobs through that failure and it sits heavily with me. At the end of the day an employer's first and primary duty is to provide work to its employees. No one is that interested in why you fail if you do. All that matters is that you did.

So to N&S I say: Have a field day about Intimate Apparel. There is no defence to your attack on our failure. Lets not pretend, however, that this has anything to do with rigging the odds in our favour.

4. Self Assessment:

Lastly, mainly for the benefit of N&S, I offer that it is better to try and fail than not to try at all. While we had our failures we also had our successes. We saved the group and we saved the majority of the jobs. While N&S record the decline in the number of workers employed in the group, they simply ignore jobs retained in businesses stabilized and sold as going concerns, where machinists continue to work and earn a living. Most of these workers are in fact directly employed in another Sactwu controlled company.

Of some significance, the key retailer supplied by the remaining factories has now come to accept it has a duty to commit volumes to these factories up front so they can plan staff levels and optimise other aspects of production. In principle this at least gives them the chance denied to Intimate Apparel to be their most efficient, which is a key to their survival.

As a manager: Its a mixed bag with plenty room to criticize.

As a union: Casino capitalism be damned. Sactwu tried harder than anyone else in the country to save the jobs of its members. It's partial success against all odds deserves more than the N&S take on it. From my seat there is no better union in the country.