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‘We have been saved’


Textile factory union NACTWU held a gathering during the May Day celebrations at Seputana Park on Friday
Textile factory union NACTWU held a gathering during the May Day celebrations at Seputana Park on Friday

Workers salute American Congress for extending AGOA by 10 years

Lekhetho Ntsukunyane

Textile workers attending Friday’s May Day celebrations at the Maseru Central Park broke into song and dance after the Ministry of Labour and Employment Principal Secretary (PS) Tahleho Mabetha announced that the American Congress had renewed the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) by 10 years.

The legislation—which has provided duty-free treatment to US imports of around 6000 products from eligible sub-Saharan African countries since it was enacted on 18 May 2000—was set to expire in September this year, leaving most of the beneficiaries stranded.

Lesotho is among the 37 nations benefitting from AGOA through its textile products and the uncertainty surrounding America’s decision on the legislation had cast a dark shadow over the industry, which employs an estimated 35 000 workers.

In fact, because of the US Congress’ continued silence over the fate of the legislation, some local textile firms had already started rationalizing operations and retrenching workers, hence the thunderous applause and cries of “we have been saved” which met Mr Mabetha’s announcement of the renewal.

Mr Mabetha told the workers that following “tireless efforts” by the government and fellow beneficiaries to have the Act extended, the continued lobbying had finally paid off and the legislation would now expire in 2025.

Friday’s celebrations were organised by the Alliance of Progressive Trade Unions (APTU), and top of the workers’ agenda was to inquire from government whether or not AGOA would be renewed, and if not, what the authorities were doing to save the textile sector.

Earlier during Friday’s celebration, the workers, through APTU Secretary General Tšeliso Ramochela, had told Mr Mabetha that they now feared for their jobs because of the uncertainty over AGOA. The workers told the PS that some of their colleagues had since been laid off due to the uncertainty and that they feared they would be next to be retrenched.

Mr Ramochela noted the workers were not only concerned about the renewal of AGOA, but also that government did not appear to have an alternative and equally friendly market for textile products.

“AGOA is an issue that continues to give us sleepless nights, so we want to know how the government is going to ensure we are not in such a desperate situation ever again,” he said.

However, Mr Mabetha was calm when it was his turn to address the workers as he knew he had the answer the whole nation had been waiting to hear for so long.

“As government, we were aware that AGOA was going to expire in September 2015, hence we established a six-member committee, in September 2014, which comprised ministers and principal secretaries from ministries of Labour and Employment, as well as Trade and Industry. The committee also had the Lesotho National Development Corporation chief executive officer and Lesotho’s Ambassador to Geneva.

“The committee, of which I was a part by the way, was tasked with negotiating an extension of AGOA with the US on behalf of the 37 countries benefitting from the programme.

“We then went to the US (in December last year) and engaged in talks with the Americans on the need to extend AGOA. I remember we had to move from one office to the other trying to negotiate the extension. The Americans promised that AGOA was going to be renewed, but indicated that there were some barriers which needed to be cleared first. We came back with no clear answer.

“But in January this year, we went back to America on the same mission. And now I am glad to announce to you today that the US has finally agreed to renew AGOA by 10 more years. This means your jobs have been secured. Lesotho will continue to sell clothes to America under those friendly AGOA terms, and this is one of the best news for the country as it means families’ livelihoods have been preserved.”

Mr Mabetha further informed the workers about progress made on the Decent Work Country Programme, which is also known as Better Work Lesotho. He noted the programme was funded by the United Sstates of America “to improve conditions at your workplace, especially in textile factories exporting clothes to the US.”

Such firms, he said, have to produce the garments “under conditions free of abuse. The workers also need to be operating in a safe environment, and I am glad to note that it is now bearing fruit.”

He further indicated that the National Social Security Scheme, which seeks to establish an insurance through which workers and their employers contribute for pension and retirements benefits, was only awaiting presentation in parliament, “so that the Bill is approved and turned into law”.

The PS also spoke about the Workmen’s Compensation Act, which he said should ensure employees are compensated if injured at the workplace.

“I am quite aware and concerned that your employers do not report your injuries at work to the Labour Department so that you are compensated accordingly. That is illegal in terms of that Act, and should stop forthwith.”

Labour Commissioner ’Mamohale Matsoso also addressed the workers and emphasised the need for them to “unite and form one big federation because that way, your concerns will be easily addressed by government.”

Yet it was news of AGOA’s renewal that had the workers dancing the day away.

Meanwhile, eligibility for AGOA is based on certain criteria, namely having or working towards a market-based economy, rule of law, the elimination of trade barriers, economic policies that reduce poverty, systems to combat corruption, protection of workers’ rights; not engaging in activities that undermine US national security; and not engaging in gross violations of human rights or supporting terrorism. Countries are reviewed annually to ensure they meet or are making progress towards meeting these criteria.

AGOA was initially meant to expire in September 2008, but legislative amendments signed into law by US President George Bush in July 2004 served to extend AGOA to 2015. At the same time, a special dispensation relating to apparel was extended by three years to 2007, but in December 2006 these were extended to 2012.

In 2007, the apparel “abundant supply” provisions were enacted, but repealedn in 2009. Their intention was to set requirements for local textile fabric sourcing where it was considered that sufficient quantities were available in AGOA-eligible countries. Third country fabric (the provisions related only to denim initially) would thus first have to be sourced locally or regionally before third country imports could be utilised for onward exports of denim garments. A subsequent legislative revision in September 2012 extended the apparel provisions to the end of 2015 to coincide with the initial expiry date of the AGOA legislation.

The apparel provisions grant countries defined by the legislation as “lesser developed”, and which have implemented a special apparel visa system, favourable rules of origin requirements.

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