When the coronavirus pandemic hit, the global fashion industry crumpled
MASERU, Lesotho — Vekile Sesha stood outside the rusted gates of a garment factory in the industrial district of Lesotho’s capital, Maseru, willing her luck to change. Four months earlier, the blue jeans factory where she worked nearby abruptly shut, blaming plummeting demand from the Western brands it supplied amid the pandemic.
She had loved the job fiercely: “I was talented, and I was doing something that was needed by the world.” Her monthly paycheck of 2,400 lots (about $150) supported a constellation of family members in her rural village. “Because of me, they never slept on an empty stomach,” she said.
Every day since, Sesha, 32, has been fighting to get that life back. On this morning, with a furious sun overhead, she joined a line of about 100 job-seekers outside the blue aluminum shell of a factory that supplies pants and athletic shirts to American chain stores.
As gates swung open, Sesha and the other women surged forward. A manager called out skills he needed: “Cutting. Serving. Marking.” But a few minutes later, the gates slammed shut and Sesha fell back — she did not get one of the temporary jobs.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit the world two years ago, the global fashion industry crumpled. Faced with collapsing demand, brands canceled orders worth billions of dollars and factories across Africa and Asia went belly up. Few felt the effects as harshly as the tens of millions of workers, most of them women, who stitched the world’s clothes.
In Lesotho, a mountainous speck of a country nestled entirely inside South Africa, the pain was especially widespread. Although small in comparison with global garment-making giants such as Bangladesh and China, Lesotho’s clothing industry is the country’s largest private employer, and more than 80% of its workers are women, according to government officials. Most, like Sesha, are the first women in their families to earn a paycheck, a quiet gender revolution built on T-shirts and tracksuits.
This story is part of a yearlong series on how the pandemic is impacting women in Africa, most acutely in the least developed countries. The Associated Press series is funded by the European Journalism Center’s European Development Journalism Grants program, which is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The is responsible for all content.
“This industry made the women of our country much less vulnerable,” said Sam Mokhele, the general secretary of the National Union of Clothing and Textile Allied Workers Union, which represents garment workers in Lesotho. “But the pandemic devastated that.”
More than 11,000 of Lesotho’s 50,000 garment workers have lost their jobs since March 2020, according to government figures. The job losses were catastrophic in one of the world’s least developed countries, with 2.1 million people and few formal employers.
The cutbacks highlighted the precarious nature of the gains made by the country’s women factory workers and the industry’s reliance on the whims of consumers on the other side of the world, where clothing is bought and disposed of at a blistering pace.
Mabuta Irene Kheoane still works in a Lesotho factory, and she knows jobs like hers have become increasingly rare. Each morning, she eyes the crowds of women outside seeking employment. The line that separates her from them is razor-thin.
“I know those ladies are hungry, I know they have kids,” she said. “What if maybe my factory will close, too?”
Like most of the women in jobs like hers, Kheoane grew up at a time when Lesotho had a different export: the labor of its men. For decades, they left the country by the tens of thousands to work in the gold, diamond and platinum mines of South Africa. The paychecks they sent to their families back home were Lesotho’s largest source of foreign income.
Kheoane’s father left each January for the mines near the South African city of Rustenburg, where nearly three-quarters of the world’s platinum is mined. Often, the family didn’t see him again until December. After a while, he stopped coming home at all. Then, he stopped sending money.
News filtered back — he’d started another family. Kheoane said she learned to never rely on a man.
By the time Kheoane turned 18 and went looking for work in Maseru’s factories, many of South Africa’s mines were empty or had cut their operations, as mineral deposits became more expensive to extract. Women like Kheoane were on their way to becoming key to her country’s economy.
In 2001, Lesotho signed on to an American trade deal: the African Growth and Opportunities Act, which guaranteed it duty-free imports to the US of clothing manufactured in the country. Chinese and Taiwanese companies built sprawling factories on the industrial edges of Maseru. Today, textile products account for nearly half of Lesotho’s exports, about $415 million annually, mostly bound for the United States.
The rapid industrial growth had a profound ripple effect across the city’s economy. Tin shacks sprouted like weeds outside the factory gates, selling garment workers everything from apples and beers to mobile phone airtime and secondhand clothing. Every morning, taxi vans full of commuters wheezed in from the city’s fringes. Landlords built rows of simple cinderblock rooms with outdoor toilets on the edges of the industrial districts, where the city slackened into farmland and herders grazed their sheep beside tiny corner stores and informal taverns.
“When you speak about this industry being devastated by the pandemic, it isn’t just the workers themselves,” said Mokhele, the union leader. “It’s everyone around them, too.”
In Lesotho’s factories, the first whispers of the global crisis that became the pandemic came early in 2020, when the Chinese companies that supply most of the fabric here abruptly canceled deliveries.
In early March, the first coronavirus cases were confirmed in neighboring South Africa. Soon after, Lesotho went into hard lockdown.
For two months, its entire garment industry shut down, save a few factories that pivoted to producing masks and other protective gear. To stay off total crisis, the government issued emergency payments of 800 loti ($52) a month to permanently employed garment workers. But it was barely enough to pay rent. And employees on temporary contracts, such as Kheoane at the time, didn’t receive anything.
In May 2020 the factories reopened, but the crisis continued. Nien Hsing, a Taiwanese company that employed more than 10,000 people to stitch jeans for American brands such as Levi’s and Wrangler, began shedding workers by the thousands and closing factories. Others followed suit.
By the following year, workers were desperate. In May 2021, local unions organized a strike to try to raise the garment sector’s monthly minimum wage — then 2,100 loti (about $140). The demonstrations turned violent, with security forces fatally shooting a garment worker.
Factories eventually agreed to raise wages by 14% but the businesses results would devastate. They warned that factory closures would follow.
One August morning, Sesha arrived at work to an announcement that the factory was shutting down. She was stunned. Factory work had been a ticket to a life far more independent than any her mother or grandmother could have imagined. She spent some of her last few dollars buying sleeping pills to quiet the thoughts that raced through her head late into the night: Would her son have to drop out of school? How would she cover rent?
“I didn’t know where to start, thinking about my future,” she said.
Kheoane clung to her own job, trying to work harder and faster to avoid being the next worker let go. Each day, as she marked T-shirt seams thousands of times, she thought of her family at home in Ha Ramokhele, a mountain village a two-hour drive from the city.
It was the kind of place she and childhood friends had scrambled up steep mountainsides to pick wild watermelons. Life’s soundtrack was the tinkling of bells on cows herded by local shepherds. The only way to town was a four-hour hike.
As Kheoane worked, her son, Bokang, stayed in Ha Ramokhele with her mother. At 11, he’d spent months out of school during the pandemic, and Kheoane worried he’d fall behind.
Her biggest wish for Bokang: “I don’t want him to work in a factory,” she said. “No one wants their kids to have the life they had.”
Experts are uncertain about the garment industry’s future — both in Lesotho and globally. It’s unclear whether the industry will find ways to better cushion workers or will continues its race to the cheapest possible production.
Amid the uncertainty, Kheoane is grateful for the work. On her monthly payday in February, she walked out of the factory gates with a crisp stack of bills in her pocket. A man fried pink rounds of baloney in a vat of oil outside, tempting the throngs of workers. Kheoane bought two chicken necks from another vendor and headed into town.
Kheoane learned long ago that wherever there is money in Lesotho, many hands reach out to claim it. Each garment worker’s salary supports half a dozen people, according to development experts. For this paycheck, Kheoane’s son needed new school shoes, and her mother had asked for groceries. Kheoane visited two stores for the purchases, using the calculator on her cracked smartphone to tally food items.
Around her, downtown Maseru was alive with the energy of factory money. Lines stretched at banks and ATMs. Couples emerged from corner bars clutching quarts of beer. Grocery stores set up loudspeakers outside their doors, bleating payday specials.
On the other side of town, Sesha was home doing laundry. She didn’t have a paycheck to spend anymore. In a few days, rent would be due, and she still wasn’t sure how…
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