Namibia: Textile Sector Stumbles As Foreign Owners Pull Out

UN Integrated Regional Information Networks

Namibia's troubled textile industry was dealt a serious blow on Thursday when 1,600 workers were retrenched.

"It is a very sad day for me, because I do not know where to find a new job," said ex-Ramatex employee Hileni Haimbondi. "At least the [retrenchment] package includes a transport payment and a small bonus, because I worked there for two years", she told IRIN.

The Rhino Garments factory, a subsidiary of the Malaysian company, Ramatex Textiles, closed its doors at the end of March after worker protests over conditions of service, but retrenchment packages were only finalised this week, following negotiations with the Namibia Food and Allied Workers' Union (NAFAU).

NAFAU secretary-general Kiros Sackarias said "most workers received the package on Thursday, via bank transaction", and described negotiations with the managers of Rhino Garments and its holding company, Ramatex, as "quite tough".

"Workers received a lump sum of between Nam $300 (US $47) and Nam $375 ($58) extra on their meagre salaries, depending on the length of their employment," he told IRIN.

Average wages ranged from Nam $600 ($94) to Nam $750 ($117), according to Sackarias.

Ramatex opened shop in Namibia in 2002, in a bid to take advantage of the US Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which gave apparel from African countries preferential access to the US market. The company invested about US $150 million in the venture.

However, allegations of poor wages, unfair labour conditions and dismissals from the 6,000 strong workforce at the main factory - as well as concerns about the factory's environmental impact - haunted Ramatex from the start.

Last September the Namibian government deported more than 400 Bangladeshi workers, after it was discovered they had been working without proper permits and living in unsuitable conditions in a house built for a small family.

The Brussels-based International Textile Garment and Leather Workers' Federation (ITGLWF) wrote to former President Sam Nujoma in January 2005, complaining about the Malaysian firm's treatment of workers. The ITGLW further appealed to all US buyers of Namibian textiles to "intervene to bring pressure to bear on the company to put in place a corrective action programme to address such appalling labour practices and workers rights' abuses".

In a letter to NAFAU informing the union that the factory would close, Rhino Garments cited a lack of US buyers for its products and pointed to NAFAU's connections to the ITGLWF as the reason for the closure.

"This is simply not true," Sackarias told IRIN. "The ITGLWF merely asked the US buyers to put pressure on Ramatex to improve working conditions."

Ramatex management declined to comment.

Labour researcher Herbert Jauch believes the Rhino Garments closure is part of a global pattern. "The example of the Ramatex subsidiary closing down and 1,600 lost jobs shows how these transnational companies use the dynamics of globalisation for themselves," said Jauch, head of the Labour Resource and Research Institute (LaRRI) in Windhoek.

"Textile factories in Swaziland and Lesotho closed down recently, with thousands of jobs lost, despite their governments, like Namibia, having offered them special investment incentives," Jauch added.

Key to protecting workers' rights would be "clear social standards, like minimum wages, conditions of employment and also environmental standards, that should be agreed on [by governments], so that international investors know what to expect in sub-Saharan Africa".

Another factor having a negative impact on the garment sector was the scrapping on 1 January 2005 of quota restrictions on clothing and textile imports from China and India to the US and European Union markets.

"Europe and the US are virtually swamped with cheap garments from the East, and I am convinced companies like Ramatex prepared for that in advance back at home, resulting in job losses here in Namibia, Lesotho and Swaziland," Jauch alleged.

Sub-Saharan African textile and garment manufacturers intend to develop a regional trade association in response to the heavy competition from low-cost Asian producers in the quota-free global market. The idea of the new body was agreed at a Regional Cotton and Textile Executive Summit, held in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, earlier this month.