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South Africa’s Garment Manufacturers, Unions Reach Agreement to Pay Workers Through Lockdown

Some good news for South Africa’s garment workers at this bleak time: The South African Clothing and Textile Workers Union (SACTWU) says it has brokered a deal to guarantee six weeks of full pay for 80,000 manufacturing employees—just in time for the country’s three-week coronavirus shutdown.

Enforcement of the stay-at-home lockdown went into effect on midnight Thursday, shuttering all non-essential businesses, including clothing and textile factories.

But the SACTWU, an affiliate of labor-rights group IndustriAll Global Union, said it was able to reach a “unique agreement” late last Tuesday with the National Bargaining Council for the Clothing Manufacturing Industry, a trade group that prevents and resolves labor disputes, establishes and administers funds pertaining to medical aid and unemployment, and promotes training and education schemes.

The agreement, according to SACTWU general secretary Andre Kriel, brings together different labor market institutions in an “innovative, problem-solving attempt”—without the need for government intervention—to ensure that workers can still support themselves and their families despite stalled production lines.

“We can’t run to government for everything. We must look at our own resources. It is our duty to rise to the call of the nation and combat COVID-19,” he said in a statement. “So we said, let’s look at the institutions that exist in our industry and smooth some of the administrative problems.”

SACTWU said it realized typical vehicles of compensation wouldn’t work in a pandemic. Workers and employers in South Africa pay into an Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) that doles out between 20 percent and 60 percent of a workers’ salary if they become unemployed. But workers have to apply individually for UIF payments at Department of Labor offices, which are unreachable during a lockdown. Mass factory closures have also resulted in a severe backlog.

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Instead, the deal will see a “collective claim” made on the workers’ behalf, it said. Funds due to them will be transferred to a bank account managed by the bargaining council, and from there to the coffers of employers who can “top up” the amounts and disburse the salaries through company payroll systems.

“In this unprecedented period, the landmark agreement reached in South Africa demonstrates that trade unions and industry can come together to find ways to support garment workers and to also ensure the viability of the industry,” IndustriAll sector director Christina Hajagos-Clausen said. “SACTWU has once again demonstrated that industry wide agreements are vital to the textile and garment sector.”

The agreement also establishes a “rapid response” taskforce that will manage “practical issues,” she added.

The number of coronavirus cases in South Africa currently stands at 1,326 confirmed infections and three deaths.