The clothing sector looks set for a strike after pay talks deadlocked this week, with the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers' Union (Sactwu) also claiming that employers were set to annul a deal made last year to offer new employees 30% lower wages.

Though the industry was showing some signs of recovery, at least 50000 jobs had been lost in the sector over the past decade. SA now imports more than 90% of the apparel sold in the country.

Wage talks between Sactwu and employer representatives, the Apparel Manufacturers of SA (Amsa), deadlocked on Wednesday, making a strike almost inevitable.

The union's opening demands amounted to an increase of 13,5% on total labour costs. Amsa did not table an offer. Instead, according to Sactwu, employers put forward a proposal to "significantly cut the wage rates of clothing workers".

Sactwu general secretary André Kriel said yesterday that the employers' proposal to cut wages would not be accepted, considering that clothing workers were the lowest paid in the manufacturing sector.

He said the union had referred the dispute to the clothing industry bargaining council, and if conciliation failed, Sactwu would conduct a ballot for industrial action.

Mr Kriel said employers had sent out a notice last month indicating that the "2011-12 substantive (wage) agreement" would lapse at the end of August. This, according to Mr Kriel, meant that the employers would subsequently cancel the entry-level wage deal entered into last year.

The deal was hailed as the "first of its kind" and was meant to boost employment in the sector by paying new workers 30% less.

Mr Kriel referred to a threat by employers to cancel the wage agreement, saying this indicated that lower wages did not necessarily translate into growth in the industry.

"We were a bit puzzled (when employers suggested that the 30% wage deal would be cancelled), but we anticipated that they (the employers) would pull such a stunt." Mr Kriel said the union's figures showed that about 500 workers had been hired on the entry-level wage since its introduction. "If the wage deal is cancelled, it means that the workers hired on that deal will have to be migrated upwards and should earn 30% more," Mr Kriel said.

Amsa director Johann Baard denied yesterday that employers sought to cancel the wage deal.

"The wage deal has created 500 jobs, why would we want to cancel it? We sent out the notice for the substantive agreement between Amsa and the trade union to lapse at the end of August. This is a normal review or expiry date of our agreement. We do intend renegotiating the terms set out therein as part of current negotiations.." he said.

He said the union had rejected Amsa's proposal for a new wage model and that its members would not entertain any reduction in the minimum-wage standards applicable in the sector.

"We are willing and desirous to grant our employees a wage increase (but) only under conditions where all employers are held to the same standard," Mr Baard said.