DA GAMA Textiles was once a hub of activity with high productivity and employing thousands of workers in the 1980s, former employee Phumzile Fikizolo reminisced.
Now there are shops on the factory premises selling clothing imported from China.
“When I started working at Da Gama in 1987, there were about 12000 employees. There were 18 or 19 departments – the cut room, spinning, winding, bleaching, printing and others. Fabric for traditional wear as well as army gear and prison uniforms were made.
“We would get cotton directly from Zimbabwe and process it here. From about the year 2000 onwards retrenchments started. The problem started when the government started trading with China. It killed the industry. [Labour union] Sactwu is still fighting against Chinese imports but it’s a tough battle,” said Fikizolo.
The Saturday Dispatch was unable to confirm information that Da Gama now produces only cotton thread and employs less than 200 people as managing director Kevin Wright was said to be out of the country and could not be reached.
When the Dispatch visited the former Da Gama factory earlier this week, there were mostly factory shops selling clothing, shoes, bags, luggage and bedding imported from China.
Each of them on average employs one or two people.
The Oriental Plaza on Park Avenue, East London, is lined with dozens of shops owned by Chinese nationals, selling hundreds of items, including Shweshwe skirts and aprons made from fabric with prints similar to Da Gama’s. Shweshwe is traditionally used by new Xhosa brides and Sotho married women at ceremonies.
Neither Chinese shop-owners nor their employees would speak to the Dispatch. The Chinese Association of South Africa had not responded to questions at the time of going to print.
Cosatu affiliate, the South African Clothing and Textile Workers Union (Sactwu) alleged that some illegal Chinese imports cost the South African Revenue Services (Sars) R3.2-billion per year, almost equal to Eastern Cape’s department of roads and public works’ budget for this year.
“R3.2-billion could have subsidised 473000 households across South Africa to receive the government’s free basic allotment of water and electricity every month for a year,” said Sactwu researcher Simon Eppel.
He added that their impact on job creation for South Africans is minimal.
“It is estimated that there may be about 6000 small Chinese shops across South Africa. Many of these are staffed by the owners of the shops, Chinese citizens. Their impact on job creation is negligible. When locals do work in these kinds of shops they often report being paid below minimum wages and experiencing illegal working conditions. There are not many Chinese-owned manufacturing operations based in South Africa,” said Eppel.
Manufacturing Circle executive director Coenraad Bezuidenhout, highlighted the influx of cheap Chinese imports as a persistent problem leading to job losses in the sector.
“Even when the rand is competitive in favour of South Africa, the Chinese government adjusts incentives to favour Chinese manufacturers. They are then able to sell their products here below the cost that we can secure raw material.
“The playing fields are not level and we continue to lose business and jobs which are effectively exported to China. Sars has at least found innovative ways to track and to stop illegal Chinese imports,” said Bezuidenhout.
Bezuidenhout said they were engaging with government to intervene in a bid to stop the “dumping” of Chinese imports.
Eppel said they had seen some government intervention as a result job losses have stabilised in the sector over the last two years. Retailers in the Da Gama premises told the Dispatch they and their customers benefited from Chinese imports as they were cheap. Even with shipping costs included, they can either undersell competitors or sell their products at the normal price.
Funeka Sineli of Wow Bargains sells clothes and bags from a 100m² outlet that once was Da Gama’s human resources office.
“When my mother worked at Da Gama Textiles years ago, this was an HR office. There were many people working in this office. It was always very busy.”
Sineli sells imported handbags, luggage and women’s clothes.
“Our stock originally comes from China but we buy it from Johannesburg and Cape Town. We are able to sell genuine leather handbags for R550, whereas it would normally cost the customer R1000 or more. It works out well for us and our customers,” said Sineli. On either side of Wow Bargains, eight other stores sell coats, boots, shoes, children’s clothes and bedding imported from China, each with one or two employees.
In other sections, there is now a post office, more shops and a plastic manufacturing plant which employs about 40 people.
Unemployment continues to plague areas which used to rely on factories like Da Gama for work.
Close to a dozen women clear blackjack and other weeds on a Wednesday morning near Simnikiwe High School in NU 7 Mdantsane. Hoe in hand, the group of 10 volunteers said they performed the daily task of weeding and collecting litter on the side of the pavement. But this is not a municipality-driven job creation initiative as it appears to be at first glance. These women with ages ranging from 41 to 55, are desperately clinging on to hopes of getting a foot in the door of the tough local job market. They paint a bleak picture, as neither they, nor the next generation – their children – who should be economically active, have jobs.
“We took this initiative last year with the hope that jobs would soon follow, but we never got anything,” said one of the women. “Not even a food parcel.” Another interjects: “Food parcels are for the few months before voting. The rest of the time, the people we vote for can just tell you to waste your energy on a fruitless exercise.”
The women claimed they were volunteering at the behest of ward councillor, Sizinzo Madikane , who allegedly promised they would be first in line to be considered for municipal jobs if they offered their services for free. But Madikane denied he had promised them jobs and said the women had offered to volunteer their services.
“I only said I would recommend that their initiative be turned into a project. There is a space for the Mdantsane Urban Renewal Project and the Public Works Department to assist,” said Madikane. The women insisted Madikane himself made the announcement “on loud- speakers”. Many of the women worked in clothing and textile factories until the factories retrenched employees en masse over the last decade from 2002 with the advent of cheap Chinese imports. For a group of young men standing nearby, many of whom have been unemployed for up to 10 years, it’s a waiting game. They have also been retrenched from textile industries or the building industry.
Nontsikelelo Rode said she worked at Yarntex, a wool thread producer in Fort Jackson, until she was retrenched in 2005. Her two children aged 21 and 35 are also unemployed, while one of her sons is in prison.
Unemployment in Mdantsane is rife and persistent even for the youth. It is not uncommon that you find three generations of family living in one house and many of them depend on their grandparents’ old-age pensions. Gertrude Gabada , 55, told the Dispatch her family relied on a generous neighbour, who even helped to pay her youngest son’s fees at Buffalo City College. Neither she, her husband or either of their two children are employed.
Gabada’s eldest son will be turning 30 in July. His most productive years will soon pass by but he has never been employed. “No one in my family puts food on the table,” Gabada said, pausing, as a lump came to her throat and her eyes welled up with tears.
“I am desperate for work that pays and I am prepared to do anything. We got child support grant for my son until last year. Now it’s very difficult to buy food, let alone pay his fees. We rely on handouts from a neighbour,” said Gabada as the tears streamed down her cheeks.
Thembela Mpevushe’s family of four rely on her husband’s salary, but with bills to pay, it’s not much she added.
According to Manufacturing Circle, South Africa lost 300000 jobs in the manufacturing sector from 2008 to last year.
The clothing, textile and tobacco industries of Southern Africa are affected by cheap Chinese imports
The Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS) released earlier this week, showed that the employment rate in the Eastern Cape has grown to 30.2% from 29.8%. The national average rate of employment rose to over 25%.
For the Eastern Cape, the expanded unemployment rate which includes those who are no longer looking for work, is at 45.8%.
According to the latest Quarterly Labour Force Survey released on Monday, 51000 people in the Eastern Cape found jobs in the period January to March this year, but the unemployment rate has risen because more people have become job seekers than those who have found employment. — firstname.lastname@example.org