Strong unions and a new generation of environmentally conscious designers may be the key to ending factory closures
Cape Town’s long-established garment industry was severely damaged in the 1990s when the free market policies of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) opened South Africa’s economy to an influx of imported goods and competition from Asia.
The result was mass factory closures. According to Statistics South Africa, garment industry jobs fell from 220,000 in 2002 to 100,000 in 2011. Cape Town’s Salt River neighbourhood is now scattered with former garment factories converted into foreign-owned call centres or simply lying empty.
Now, however, the race is on to save the industry and Cape Town is emerging as a design capital and manufacturing hub with a refreshing difference – it has safe workplaces and a desire to share the stories of its garment workers.
A key driver of change is the South African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union(SACTWU). Tired of retailers shipping millions of tonnes of clothes halfway round the world, SACTWU has a buy local policy. To promote this, the union runs shops that stock “Made in South Africa” clothing and is famous for its Spring Queen Pageant in which garment workers model clothes they have made.
Garment workers in South Africa are predominantly women, often single mothers and their family’s soul breadwinner. SACTWU states that 70-80% of garment workers are union members, which places the union in a strong position to negotiate for good conditions.
While the director of SACTWU’s research unit, Etienne Vlok, does not pretend factories are problem-free, he does describe them as good, safe workplaces. “Buy a garment with a Made in South Africa label and you can have peace of mind that the garment was made under good conditions,” Vlok says. “We want to use this as our competitive advantage.”
This desire is mirrored at the luxury end of the industry. The Cape Town Fashion Council represents approximately 300 designers nationwide, and CEO Bryan Ramkilawan emphasises Cape Town’s production quality: “We produce in an ethical way, we are not producing in a sweatshop environment.”
This ethos could be key to ending the factory closures. Ramkilawan points out that many of the designers showing at Cape Town Fashion Week have relatives who worked in the now-closed factories. Being so embedded in the community means their aim is “to create something that isn’t competing directly with cheap Chinese exports, but which is locally produced to empower people and which incorporates elements of South African traditional culture and design”.
It’s not easy, though. The problem Ramkilawan faces is that South Africa doesn’t have multi-brand stores to stock the collections of the people he represents, meaning they must seek markets overseas in places such as London and New York.
Along with the garment workers’ union and the Cape Town Fashion Council, there is another force driving change and environmental sustainability. Inspired by Cape Town’s place as World Design Capital 2014, and by the city’s Design Indabas, Cape Town’s young design community is devoted to design, sustainability and putting South Africa on the fashion map.
One such designer is Zaid Philander, founder of sustainable accessories brand I Scream & Red. He comes from a family of garment workers, many of whom lost their jobs in the late 1990s – a time he describes as horrible.
When he first learned to sew as a little boy, Philander’s feet couldn’t reach the sewing machine peddle and his sister had to devise a contraption from a crutch and a hosepipe that let him sew with his elbow. Some 20 years later the knowledge that “you don’t need to be of a certain height and have two arms and two legs to work a sewing machine” means that the majority of I Scream & Red’s employees are people with disabilities who work using adapted sewing machines. One employee is Zama Sonjika, who had both his legs amputated after an accident, but who now runs his own sewing business.
The neatly-constructed I Scream & Red bags are made from sample books, tents, PVC billboard banners and flags from the City of Cape Town 2010 FIFA World Cup. The bag straps are seatbelts recycled from the Cape Town car pound.
Philander rejects the idea that planet friendly fashion means “recycled hessian potato sacks” and people wearing “scratchy beige fabric”. Instead he argues that “you can have cutting-edge fashion at no cost to the earth and also do it in a responsible way – people in society need the work”.
For Philander, and perhaps for Cape Town, this means rejecting the global fashion model that prioritises cheap materials, immorally low wages and expanded distribution over product: “I believe that it is the worker who comes first, then your product is made and then everything else falls into place,” he says.
Back at the Cape Town Fashion Council, Ramkilawan reiterates the importance of fair production: “A chief part of our success is the story – you can track the garments, you can track who produced the garments, you can even visit the person producing the garments. You can steal the idea but you can’t steal the story.”
This article was amended on 3 February 2015. The original referred to Salt Rock, where it now says Salt River.
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