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Lesotho's Clothing Trade Cuts a Dash

Published date:
Tuesday, 03 May 2005

The antiglobalisers who blame the rise of world brands for every modern ill, including the increase in labour exploitation, should take a close look at the reality of clothing manufacture in southern Africa. Socially responsible sourcing of clothing by big companies in the west may yet help the region weather the pending wave of Chinese clothing exports into the developed world.

Labour conditions have changed significantly for the better in southern Africa's apparel industry, much of it driven by the effort and vigilance of big brands such as Gap and Levi Strauss.

Lesotho's apparel industry is a prime example. When southeast Asian investors moved into the country in the mid-1980s their human resource management was hardly exemplary. A range of abuses was rumoured or recorded. Trade unions and Lesotho's labour department seemed powerless. When the major US brands and retailers started buying from Lesotho, the industry underwent a startling transformation.

The shift in Lesotho's labour relations has been fundamental. A significant shift in attitude is taking place among apparel investors. This is partly because of pressure from the brands but there is a growing understanding that the path to global competitiveness lies in fostering the labour-capital partnership.

In Lesotho, freedom of association is the norm. It was not always so. With the introduction of Agoa (the US's African Growth and Opportunity Act) and the arrival of multinationals, industrialists were forced to engage with labour and there is now healthy interaction.

It seems ironic that, while some predict the complete demise of the region's apparel industry, Lesotho's investors have started to invest massively in training, particularly in productivity, industrial engineering and human resource management. Some factories are reporting production efficiency increases of up to 25%. Industrialists, in partnership with labour, are committed to increasing their competitiveness in a hostile trading environment made worse by the weak dollar and demise of quotas. Last year, labour agreed to forgo an annual wage increase to keep the industry alive.

Industrialists have not ignored the so-called softer issues. A number of factories have implemented workplace HIV/AIDS programmes and the entire industry is looking to develop a long-term intervention to address the pandemic afflicting their workforce. One of the larger jeans-producing factories, and Lesotho produces more than 2-million denim garments a month, has installed a water recycling plant recovering more than 60% of water used. Two other water-recycling plants are under construction.

The enhancement of the labour-capital contract pays multiple dividends - harmonious labour relations, increased productivity, cleaner environment, higher prices and, for retailers, freedom from ethical risk.

The owners are not alone in their efforts to sustain and foster their industry. The Lesotho government works closely with industrialists, their customers, foreign governments and labour to develop a common vision of making Lesotho a destination of choice for investors and buyers alike.

All credit should go to the nongovernmental organisations that monitor the behaviour of multinationals. There is no doubt that they have been solely responsible for the inclusion of ethical codes of conduct into the sourcing value chain. Many retailers have heeded the call and are policing their supplier value chain seriously.

The more enlightened acknowledge the need to do this transparently. We should encourage and applaud because, where they develop the ethical integrity of their sources, others will follow. Lesotho's workers have certainly benefited from the relationship.

Salm is regional textile and apparel sector specialist at the ComMark Trust.

“AGOA Latest AGOA Trade Data currently available on

Click here to view a sector profile of Lesotho's bilateral trade with the United States, disaggregated by total exports and imports, AGOA exports and GSP exports.

Other regularly updated trade statistics on include: (click each link to view)

  • AGOA-Beneficiary Countries’ AGOA and GSP Trade Aggregates

  • AGOA Trade by Industry Sector

  • Apparel Trade under AGOA’s Wearing Apparel Provisions

  • Latest Apparel Quotas under AGOA

  • Bilateral Trade Data for all AGOA-eligible countries individually.

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