A letter from Doug Tilton in South Africa
April 17, 2005
When you go shopping, do you look at the tags? If you are like me, the price tag is usually the only one that really matters. But of late, I have been more interested in another tag: the label of origin. In our globalized world, the things we buy, especially our clothing, often come from some far-flung locations. If you check the tags on the things you are wearing right now, you may find that your ensemble comes from two, three or even four continents. Have you ever wondered what life is like for the people who made your clothes?
The issue has been much on my mind recently because of a recent series of events. In March, Rex Trueform, one of South Africa’s oldest clothing manufacturers, announced plans to close its Cape Town factory due to a lack of orders. Rex Trueform is an institution in Cape Town. Nearly every working-class household on the Cape Flats has a family member who has worked for Rex at one time or another, and just about every Capetonian has some of Rex’s garments in their closets (including my Sunday suit!). In a country where the (unofficial) unemployment rate is already over 40 percent, the loss of another 1,000 jobs — particularly at such a venerable institution — was quite a blow.
The closure, if it happens, will have a ripple effect through the entire community. The story that one of the workers shared at a recent South African Council of Churches (SACC) seminar on trade policy is typical. In a voice choked with emotion, Vijoana Daniels said, “I started working at Rex Trueform when I was 16. I’m turning 49 this year. Rex Trueform is my family. When we got news that they were going to close, I went home and cried so bitterly. It was like a death sentence. I have a son of 13 and I still need to work at least another five years to support my son. We all have families to support. Some people have been there for 50 years. They can’t just walk into another job.”
The irony is that South Africa is experiencing its fastest period of economic growth in two decades, and consumer spending has driven much of this growth. So why is Rex Trueform closing? And why has South Africa lost 150,000 jobs in the clothing, textile and footwear sector in the last decade, including 17,000 in the past year alone?
South Africa has been hit by a “double whammy.” On one hand, after a decade in slow decline, the rand — the South African currency — has appreciated sharply since 2002, making imported goods seem much cheaper. On the other hand, World Trade Organization (WTO) rules have required South Africa (and other nations) to relax import tariffs that might otherwise have shielded domestic industries from foreign competition. Indeed, the South African government has been so overzealous in its embrace of the orthodoxy of “free trade” that it has reduced textile tariffs even more rapidly than the WTO demanded.
As a result, the vast majority of the clothes for sale in Cape Town shops are made in China and other Asian nations, where workers usually do not enjoy even the limited protections that South African workers have won since the demise of apartheid. Even Queenspark, a chain of retail stores owned by Rex Trueform, is buying most of their inventory overseas, and not from their parent company.
The Rex Trueform closure has become a lightning rod for the larger issue of job losses in South Africa. Churches are struggling to decide how best to respond to these challenges. Some commentators have blamed the victims, accusing organized labor of driving up wages and demanding benefits that make South African goods “uncompetitive” in both foreign and domestic markets.
In contrast, the SACC has formed a “Save Jobs Coalition” with the main labor federation, COSATU, and community groups such as the Treatment Action Campaign. The Coalition has supported organized labor’s call on clothing retailers to sign a code of conduct that includes a commitment to purchasing 75 percent of their stock from domestic producers.
The campaign became the centerpiece of the past week’s activities in conjunction with the Global Week of Action on Trade (April 10–16). The week was intended to raise awareness of the injustices of the current international trade rules, which produce disproportionate benefits for the wealthy, both within and among nations.
In Cape Town, faith leaders kicked off the week by visiting a Queenspark store in a local shopping mall to solicit support for the proposed code of conduct. On Thursday, the SACC and other groups organized an interfaith service for trade justice in central Cape Town. During the first part of the service, which took place in the Anglican cathedral, members of the South African Clothing and Textile Workers Union spoke movingly about job losses and the impact they had on their families, and Anglican Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane made an impassioned plea for an end to poverty and unjust trade rules. Singing the Zulu hymn “Siyahamba” (We are marching in the light of God), the congregation then followed the faith leaders out of the church and onto the streets of Cape Town. The procession passed the Houses of Parliament and the corporate offices of two large clothing retailers — where they paused to hand over memoranda calling on the companies to sign the code of conduct — before concluding at the Catholic cathedral.
Father Peter-John Pearson captured the mood of the marchers perfectly in his closing remarks, “A luta continua! As long as people must go to bed hungry at night, as long as people do not have access to adequate health care and medications, as long as people cannot afford water, the struggle must continue.” And so it must.
The 2005 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 339