Less than two weeks after the Swazi government announced the immediate banning of all trade unions and employer federations in the country, Swazi workers are reeling from the news that 1450 textile workers are losing their jobs.
Despite media reports to the contrary, and following the decision of the United States government to kick Swaziland out of the African Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA), the country’s biggest textile company, Tex Ray, has been forced to shut down.
According to human resources manager, Jackie Xu, the company is no longer getting any orders from the US since President Barack Obama announced the removal of Swaziland as a beneficiary on June 27.
Tex Ray was exporting 100 percent of its goods to the US as a result of the preferential trade agreement.
“We are heartbroken that our long relationship with the workers has to come to an end in such a manner but there is just no work,” Xu told the Times of Swaziland on 28 October.
On 5 September 2014, about 400 Tex Ray workers had to be rushed to hospital after they were exposed to the fumes of a toxic chemical that spilled on the factory floor.
However, the company has denied claims that the factory’s closure has anything to do with that incident.
Although the decision of the US government is effective as of next year, Xu said its clients have been reluctant to do business since the US fell out with the Swazi government over the systematic violation of workers’ rights.
In a country with an unemployment rate of around 40 per cent, Swaziland’s textile industry provides employment for thousands of people.
However, as a recent survey of textile workers showed, conditions are difficult. Workers are sometimes subject to a number of labour rights abuses – including violence.
And while Tex Ray is the first company to shut up shop, there are fears that it won’t be the last.
The textile industry is dominated by Taiwanese businesses who settled in the country after Swaziland became an AGOA beneficiary in January 2001.
“As more companies close down, more workers in different sectors are going to lose their jobs,” said Wander Mkhonza (also known as Wonder Mkhonta), the secretary general of the Amalgamated Trade Union of Swaziland.
Mkhonza says that even companies that are providing support services such as security and transport will also be forced to retrench their staff. In the worst case scenario, an estimated 12,000 workers could lose their jobs.
“Get your act together – or leave”
However, the government has so far failed to address the five benchmarks that resulted in Swaziland losing out on this preferential trade agreement.
As a beneficiary of AGOA, Swaziland is expected to amend the Industrial Relations Act to allow the registration of worker federations and update the Public Order Act to allow the peaceful assembly of workers.
The US government gave Swaziland up to the end of the year to put its act together or exit the trade agreement for good as of 2015.
However, the government retaliated by banning all worker and employer federations on 8 October. This includes the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA), the Federation of the Swaziland Business Community (FESBC) and the Federation of Swaziland Employers and Chamber of Commerce (FSE&CC).
Winnie Magagula, the minister for labour and social security, told the press that federations were not banned and that the move was necessary in order to allow for amendments to the Industrial Relations Act.
She said the current situation would remain until parliament passed an amended law that would “outline the qualification and criteria for eligibility to be registered as a federation.”
The government has not stated, however, when the amended law will be ready.
Tucoswa’s secretary general, Vincent Ncongwane, described the move as yet another attempt to silence the “only independent voice” available to the Swazi people after the government banned all political parties in 1973.
“This government is prepared to throw the country to the dogs while defending the indefensible,” he told Equal Times.
On Wednesday, human rights activists expressed their outrage that the human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko and journalist Bheki Makhubu were denied bail.
The pair have been in prison since March 2014 for questioning the independence of Swaziland’s judiciary.