Labour Codes of Conduct: Workers' Rights and Unions in Southern Africa's Garment Industry

By Søren Jeppesen, CBDS, MSC, CBS and Andries Bezuidenhout, Department of Development Studies, University of Fort Hare, South Africa

Professor Søren Jeppesen observes a truck leaving factory gates in Maseru, Lesotho

The garment industry is often portrayed as an industry that has the potential to bring about large-scale economic and social changes in countries in the Global South. Bangladesh and China are examples of this, where garment manufacturing led to increased levels of employment and further industrial development. However, smaller economies can also benefit from the industry by establishing a significant number of formal jobs in contexts otherwise dominated by informality and subsistence agriculture. Lesotho and Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland) in Southern Africa are such examples, where some 45.000 and 22.000 jobs have been created since the late 1990s/early 2000s. The bulk of the garments made in these new factories is exported to the US and to the two countries’ South African neighbours.

Map of Southern Africa – with Lesotho and Eswatini highlighted

However, the garment industry also has a different and somewhat darker side. Significant parts of the industry are characterized by tough working conditions and extremely low wages. This, for obvious reasons, attracts criticism from workers, trade unions, consumer organizations, NGOs, and human rights organizations. Lesotho and Eswatini are no exception to this. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, campaigns about working conditions in these factories undertaken by workers and unions, supported by student movements and unions in the Global North, led to some major retail brands introducing labour codes of conduct to be complied with by their suppliers. These codes, some argue, will ensure proper working conditions and wages not lower than the national minimum level.

Particularly in Lesotho, the implementation of these codes of conduct led to some improvements. To be sure, the country marketed itself as a ‘sweat free’ production destination after these codes had been implemented by major fashion brands. These improvements include better lighting and temperature control in factories. Lesotho, also called the Mountain Kingdom, has extremely cold winters and seething hot summers. However, there is an argument that this focus on ‘outcome rights’ is at the expense of workers themselves voicing their own concerns, also referred to as ‘process rights’ (for more on ‘outcome rights’ and ‘process rights’ see Mick Blowfield’s article published nearly two decades ago in Third World Quarterly *). In addition, while some basic health and safety conditions have improved, wages remain low. The result is that workers and trade unions continue to dispute the sustainability of their working conditions.

The situation in Lesotho and Eswatini points to a number of salient issues regarding options for workers and trade unions in similar contexts, which we outline below. Three issues stand out:

  1. Although codes of conduct fulfil some minimum conditions according to national law, these codes do not necessarily ensure ‘good working conditions and proper (living or decent) wages’.

  2. Although consumers in the Global North may think that a label in a T-Shirt stating that certain standards have been met and social responsibilities upheld, the groups mainly impacted in the Global South may think differently.

  3. While minor improvements in working conditions and (minimum) wages might be celebrated as ‘major achievements’ at one stage, the benefits and experience impact in the Global South can be limited and short-lived. This, in turn, calls for long-term and a more sustained effort internationally and nationally, if the process of outsourced production is to lead to more substantive benefits for workers, and for companies and economies in the Global South.

The entry of the garment industry in Lesotho and Eswatini & the response from workers and unions

Garment manufacturing started in Lesotho and Eswatini in the 1970s and 1980s when South African companies set up production in the two countries. The new employment options were generally welcomed, but as Asian, mainly Taiwanese, companies joined the industry, discontent grew. These manufacturers were under pressure to produce large orders at cut-throat profit margins. Supervisors often did not speak local languages and did not understand local behavioural norms. Workers felt offended by what was considered to be harsh language by foreign supervisors and protests were staged. As the industry rapidly expanded due to additional South African, but in particular Taiwanese investments, additional protests followed. Now issues emerged that also related to long working hours, in warm/humid and poor ventilated factories, and low wages.

Trade unions engaged in collective organizing of workers, though encountering several obstacles in reaching a sufficient level of representation to be granted rights to negotiate with management on behalf of workers. Both Lesotho and Eswatini have labour laws that technically comply with the International Labour Organisation’s core conventions, but the proverbial devil is often in the detail. First of all, in Lesotho, labour laws stipulate that such rights can only be granted when organizing 50% of the workers in a workplace. This threshold for representation is extremely difficult to achieve. In Eswatini, strikes are technically legal, but long ‘cooling-off periods’ stipulated by labour law makes it hard to follow through on industrial action. Secondly, in both countries several unions sprung up, which led to internal competition and union rivalry. In Lesotho, this even further limited the chances of even one union being able to organize 50% of the workers. Thirdly, due to intimidation, extremely low wages (which makes paying union dues difficult), as well as the fear of losing their jobs, workers were reluctant to join unions. So, limited progress materialized.

Workers leaving a garment factory in Maseru, Lesotho

The picture seemed to change as student organisations and unions in the US became aware of the conditions in Lesotho and to some extent Eswatini. They started to engage the US retailers and brands buying the products from Southern Africa and campaigning in favour of improved conditions in the factories. In Eswatini, where a larger share of the production went to South Africa, the unions started to collaborate with South African counterparts (unions from the Congress of South African Trade Unions, or COSATU). Eventually, the US retailers and brands found the media attention and queries in the US to be too cumbersome. They accepted that some improvements needed to take place and a number of codes of conduct were signed between the US buyers and the mainly Taiwanese garment producers.

These labour codes of conduct led to some improvements in wages, as well as safety and health conditions. An industry initiative in Lesotho attempted to pool resources from different companies to respond to high levels of HIV/AIDS among employees. These initiatives were celebrated in the media in the US, but soon the workers and unions in the two countries realized that the wages continued to be (way) below a living wage. Garment manufacturers expected their orders to increase due to them complying with codes of conduct, but this was not the case. Some union activists felt that the codes made minor improvements in terms of outcomes, but did not significantly address extremely low wages. As a result, protests resumed – and continue to do so as workers fail to see significant improvement.

The challenges encountered

The implementation of codes of conduct indicates some level of attention to the particular economic and social issues in the countries where factories are located. There is certainly some level of social responsibility among both brands and retailers as the industry’s major buyers. But the question remains whether these improvements will spill over into sustained changes and more meaningful improvements. Workers and unions have quite legitimate claims — who in a Danish setting would not acknowledge the right to a living wage? — but industry conditions point in a different direction. These conditions are linked to the competitive nature of the industry, dynamics related to the states where production is located, as well as the limits to consumer activism under such conditions.

Informal trading stores in front of a garment factory in Maseru, Lesotho

From a global perspective, fierce competition between countries to attract garment manufacturers to set up shop means that the typical wage paid is low. Wage increases beyond a certain level can price a country out of the market and producers may move elsewhere (on this, see Pietra Rivoli’s now classic book The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy **).

In addition, and also importantly, workers and their unions have little backing from the state in the two countries. As mentioned above, on balance the labour laws are in support of the garment manufacturers and working against the interest of the workers and their unions. More importantly, the governments of the two countries have a clear agenda in support of the garment manufacturers as part of their investment policy. The outcome of this has been a foreign-owned industry with little link to local businesses and markets. There certainly is the potential that the presence of the industry could assist in building locally owned businesses, but little effort to bring this about through industrial policy. Rather, state intervention is directed at tax breaks for investors, the provision of factory shells in industrial parks, as well as the promise of labour at competitive wage rates. Accordingly, the labour side has been met with a narrative of ‘we should make sure not to scare away the investors’ (understood as ‘we should not ask for too high wages’) – or as framed in the Eswatini context: ‘The foreign investors are like birds who can easily fly away’. In both countries, strikes are routinely met with police violence.

Finally, the awareness of the ‘critical consumers’ and to some extent the ‘critical/supportive’ media in the Global North tends to be short-lived. While both groups can be mobilized for a cause for some time, both tend to turn attention elsewhere within a short time. Consumers feel assured that the social responsibilities are actually making a difference and tend not to follow up on their earlier concerns. Media tends to move on to the next ‘hot topic’ and similarly not follow up on earlier inquiries. Hence, the initial gains made based on attention, joint collaboration and pressures in the Global North and in the Global South wane, leaving workers and unions to continue their fight alone (see Gay Seidman’s book Beyond the Boycott: Labour Rights, Human Rights, and Transnational Activism for more on this ***). The bottom-line in Lesotho and Eswatini, unfortunately, is one of limited and insufficient change leaving the workers with non-living wages and a lot to be desired regarding working conditions in general.

Ways ahead

An analysis that only points to the structural constraints to improving the working conditions and lives of workers in these garment factories runs the risk of ignoring their own efforts to bring about change. Despite the constraints on the potential outcome of the years of struggle, workers and unions have made progress and continue to push for decent work and living wages. In Lesotho, unions often strategically use contact with fashion brands to put pressure on local manufacturers and they have also put political pressure on the state to increase the minimum wage. Unions also formed a single union called the Independent Democratic Union of Lesotho (IDUL), although smaller rivals still muddy the waters of solidarity. In Eswatini, rival unions have also come together to form the Amalgamated Trade Unions of Swaziland (ATUSWA) and have used international pressure to force the state to recognise them as legitimate unions when the government refused to register the newly formed union. The history shows that options for positive gains do exist, especially when based on international collaboration and an ability to create international attention to the issues at stake.

Here we could highlight that proper consumer awareness in Denmark and in South Africa can potentially have significant influence on the situation, but this influence also depends on a more careful understanding of power dynamics in the industry. These power dynamics relate to both the cut-throat nature of competition in the industry and local repression by governments. Hence, activism in the Global North also has to be focused on strengthening internal workers’ organisation and not be focused on ‘outcome rights’ at the expense of ‘process rights’. In the end, workers should be able to voice their interests, rather than being the beneficiaries of ‘social responsibility’. In both countries, the unions have been able to overcome former differences and set up common unions – an important step towards securing the rights of their members.

The blog draws on a longer-term collaboration between the authors, which presently is supported by funding from the Danish Free Research Funds (in Danish: Danmarks Frie Forskningsfond - DFF) through its Society and Business arm. The funding is allocated for an ‘International Research Stay’ for Søren Jeppesen at University of Fort Hare, South Africa with a focus on: ‘Understanding the Role of Business in Development: The Garment Industry in Southern Africa and Enclave Development.’ For joint publications, see below.

Søren Jeppesen is an Associate Professor in Business & Development Studies (see: His main research areas includes CSR, SMEs and Entrepreneurship in developing countries with an emphasis on Southern and Eastern Africa. He works on issues regarding local factors which influence the development and growth potential of developing country firms (or lack of same). One of his major research activities concerns the importance of Codes of Conduct for working conditions in the textiles and clothing industry in Southern Africa (in South Africa, Lesotho and Eswatini).

Andries Bezuidenhout is Professor of Development Studies at the University of Fort Hare in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province. His main research areas include an interest in precarious labour, labour markets, labour movements and development policy. He is the co-author of Grounding globalization: labour in the age of insecurity (2008, Blackwells) and co-editor of the forthcoming volume Critical engagement with public sociology: Perspectives from the Global South (2022, Bristol University Press).

Joint Publications:

Bezuidenhout, A. and Jeppesen, S. (2011). ‘Between State, Market and Society: Labour Codes of Conduct in the Southern African Garment Industry.’ Development Southern Africa, Vol. 28, no. 5, pp. 653-668.

Jeppesen, S and Bezuidenhout, A. (2019). ‘Swaziland: The Garment Industry in its Economic, Political and Social Context.’ Frederiksberg: Copenhagen Business School [wp] 2019, 51 p. (CBDS Working Paper Series, No. 4, 2019).

Jeppesen, S. and Bezuidenhout, A. (2019). ‘Lesotho: The Garment Industry in its Economic, Political and Social Context.’ Frederiksberg: Copenhagen Business School [wp] 2019, 50 p. (CBDS Working Paper Series, No. 3, 2019).

References/Further reading:

*Blowfield M (1999) Ethical trade: A review of developments and issues. Third World Quarterly 20(4): 753-770.

**Rivoli P (2005) The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of World Trade. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

***Seidman G (2009) Beyond the Boycott: Labour Rights, Human Rights, and Transnational Activism. New York: Russell Sage.

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