In Lesotho, casual clothes for U.S. are serious matter

Industry: Jobs stitching T-shirts and jeans energize the tiny African country's economy.

January 15, 2003|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MASERU, Lesotho - Residents of this southern African kingdom already know what Americans will be wearing this summer.

In the capital's industrial zone set in the foothills of the Maluti Mountains, Raytex Garments' 600 employees sit hunched over sewing machines stitching blue and yellow baseball shirts for the shelves of Gap stores in the United States.

Nearby, J&S Fashions is producing a line of knit pants and tops for Wal-Mart and Kmart. And on the factory floor of Nien Hsing International, several thousand workers are cutting and sewing ribbons of denim fabric into a fresh supply of America's fashion staple - blue jeans.

All these garments sport a label Americans can expect to see more often on their clothing: "Made in Lesotho."

It's a phrase as unfamiliar to residents here as it will be to most Americans. Up until a few years ago, this nation of cattle herders and maize farmers was not known for producing much of anything. Its main export was water to South Africa.

But thanks to a little-known U.S. trade initiative, this country's sleepy economy has awakened - turning it into the largest African supplier of clothing to the United States.

A relatively obscure action by the United States has brought, as intended, significant changes thousands of miles away.

Passed by Congress in 2000, the African Growth and Opportunity Act slashed duties and quotas on thousands of African-produced goods - from car parts to T-shirts - for export to America.

In the United States, the act received little attention. But here, thousands of miles from Washington, the law has transformed the country's economy. In the past two years, 11 new factories have opened for business here and eight others have expanded, creating more than 15,000 new jobs.

By the bootstraps

"The initiative is there to try to pick us up by the bootstraps," said Mpho Malie, Lesotho's minister of trade and industry.

Bush administration officials point to Lesotho's achievements as one of the primary examples of the United States' new relationship with Africa - a relationship that promotes economic development through increased trade rather than aid.

But Lesotho's progress has come at a price, residents here say. As investment has rushed in, so too have challenges to the country's traditional society.

The capital, Maseru - a rough-hewn city where residents do not look out of place walking down the street with a pitchfork or a donkey in tow - is now home to traffic jams, increasingly crowded living conditions and a burgeoning sex trade as thousands of rural dwellers migrate to the city with dreams - often unfulfilled - of finding work.

In the factories, workers regularly complain about low wages and poor working conditions. One union leader recently compared the jobs, which pay about $80 per month, to slavery.

Family disruption

The economic changes have also been felt in Lesotho's traditionally male-headed households. Under the law in this former British colony, women are treated as minors who do not have the right to own land, have access to bank loans or even buy contraceptives without their husbands' permission.

But the textile factories - which hire women almost exclusively - have made thousands of women the family breadwinners.

Consider the case of the Hequo family. Johannes Heqou worked for more than a decade at a coal mine in South Africa, sending home about $300 a month before he was laid off in 1999 along with thousands of other Lesotho miners.

Hequo returned to his cinderblock house set in the rock hills outside Maseru, where he lives with his wife, Anna, and their five children.

Hequo looked for work unsuccessfully. Last year, Anna Hequo landed a job at a local T-shirt factory, working the 7 p.m.-to-6 a.m. shift. She is paid about 40 cents per hour, a fraction of what her husband earned but enough to keep the family afloat.

Johannes Hequo now stays at home tending a small garden, swallowing his pride as he watches his wife bring home her wages each month.

"It's so painful for me," he said as he sat at his kitchen table on a recent afternoon. "According to Lesotho custom, the men should support the family."

The Hequos said they have adjusted to the change, but social workers say violence against women is on the rise as husbands become dependent on their wives.

"The men feel like they have lost some respect. There is family turmoil," said Washi Mokati, a social worker for a sexual health group sponsored by CARE.

Foreign investors

Nearly all the factories that have opened in Lesotho are owned by Chinese or Taiwanese investors who have moved their operations here because of quota restrictions on exports to the United States from their own countries.

Jennifer Chen, president of the Lesotho Textile Exporters Association and owner of the Shining Century clothing factory, said she expects Africa to become a major textile center as more companies take advantage of the continent's labor force.

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