University of Cape Town professor Nicoli Nattrass. Picture: PUXLEY MAKGATHO
University of Cape Town professor Nicoli Nattrass. Picture: PUXLEY MAKGATHO

PROFESSORS Nicoli Nattrass and Jeremy Seekings of the University of Cape Town (Real wages the issue, Letters, February 13) commit two fundamental errors in respect of the very important debate concerning wages and jobs in the clothing manufacturing sector.

Recently, during an interview with Radio 702, I said that the Apparel Manufacturers of SA (Amsa) membership are broadly on the same page with those arguing that "a job is better than no job".

Nonetheless, the differences between academics (as important as their work may be) and business people remain fundamental.

One is that we have to contend with both the ruthless commercial realities of international competition as well as the unforgiving realities of collective bargaining within the less than perfect confines of the Labour Relations Act.

Our reality is, more often than not, "the art of the possible". Academics, for obvious reasons, have far greater freedom and often (as they maybe should) confront society with models reflecting "the ideal".

We, unfortunately, do not have this luxury as an option in our collective bargaining tool-kit.

The professors say: "In recent work, we pointed out how the national bargaining council for the clothing industry sets wages suitable for capital-intensive metro firms".

This is simply not so. Some 90%-plus of clothing factories use virtually the same machines, differentiated only by make and age.

The product profile of garments manufactured in the metro and non-metro regions represent an overlap and similarity in fabric and garment construction (other than some instances of highly constructed tailored products).

For the rest, it is a brutal and uncompromising battle for survival where price continues to trump other value propositions such as quality, speed, flexibility and reliability.

It stands to reason, therefore, that contrary to their argument that non-metro "low wage companies" do not compete with metro factories, the widespread noncompliance does lead to unfair competition, as evidenced by the many thousands of compliant jobs lost in the sector, both metro and non-metro over the past 15 years.

This is the reality confronting the Amsa membership daily, and threatening their businesses and the jobs of their employees.

On what logic or morality can one argue for the preservation of non-compliant jobs at the expense of the jobs of those employees working in compliant factories in both the metro and non-metro locations?

Having said this, the need for a new labour-cost model for labour-intensive manufacturing such as the clothing industry is undeniable.

I have said this before, if labour-intensive manufacturing fails, industrial policy in SA has failed. One thing is beyond doubt: the market has trumped policy. This is evident in the fact that nearly 50% of all workers employed under the auspices of the clothing industry bargaining council are employed at wages below those prescribed in the Main Agreement.

A different model is indeed required. Solutions, however cannot be imposed — which brings me back to the art of the possible.

Johann Baard

Executive Director, Apparel Manufacturers of SA