The South African Clothing and Textiles Workers Union (Sactwu) yesterday dismissed claims by employers in the sector that most union members were against strike action.

The union said early indications of its balloting exercise showed that the majority of its members were in favour of industrial action. Sactwu is balloting its 40,000 members around the country about strike action after declaring a dispute with employer representative body, the Apparel Manufacturers of SA (Amsa), early this year.

Strike action could in all likelihood hurt the industry further which has been showing modest signs of recovery. At least 50,000 jobs have been lost in the sector over the past 10 years.

The union rejected Amsa’s wage offer for non-metro workers. The union is demanding a weekly wage rise of R45 for non-metro workers, or workers in rural areas, while Amsa is offering about R32. The union and the employer have thus far settled for a 6.5% increase for metro workers.

Employers also want to cut the wages of new workers by at least 20% and want the union to agree that new factories can employ all workers at 20% less than agreed in the wage talks.

"The facts are that out of the five factories for which the ballot has been counted and duly verified with both employer and union ballot observer present, a total of 814 workers have cast their secret votes.

"Out of this total 742, or 91%, of workers have voted in favour of a strike action," said Sactwu secretary-general Andre Kriel.

Voting results of the union’s northern Natal branch in KwaZulu-Natal yesterday showed 93% of the workers were in favour of strike action with only 6% voting against it. Workers in 25 factories were balloted in this branch.

Last week, Amsa had said that the strike ballot showed that a "significant number of workers were voting against going on strike". Amsa director Johann Baard said in a statement at the weekend he was pleased workers were seemingly against strike action as the industry could not afford the costs and disruptions of employees not working.

"We have a unique window of opportunity where the fortunes of the garment industry could take a turn for the better provided we respond appropriately and timeously. We must now go forward together in a spirit of co-operation. The last thing we need is the divisive effect of a strike," Mr Baard said.

However, Mr Kriel said the suggestion that workers were not prepared to go on strike was "propagandist speculation".

"We caution against employers’ propagandistic speculation about the results of ballots which have not yet been counted.

"Are they so desperate?"

The balloting started last Tuesday and the union has set a target to ballot 40,000 clothing workers in 500 factories, over a two-and-a half-week period.

Mr Baard also said there was a lot of work to do to put the industry on a sound footing.

"We need to look at some serious labour market anomalies and in particular a new wage model. Many of the factories, especially those in Newcastle, are not members of Amsa and they are paying lower wages than those agreed to in the National Bargaining Council. "