Philasande Mthethwa saw the tell-tale signs that Orient Sun Clothing Company was hurtling to a bust. At 18 years old, he’d joined the company and worked in perilous conditions, together with some 30,000 people in eSwatini’s textile industry in the early 2000s. Coming from a poor background, Phila had learned to fend for himself at an early age. But nothing prepared him for the relentless abuse and exploitation of workers at the textile factory. One day the Chinese manager assaulted him and Philasande’s life changed forever. Now 35 years old and a trade union official, Philasande narrated his journey into unionism.
My current job as Industrial Field Officer and Organiser at Swaziland Commercial and Allied Workers Union (SCAWU) is a far cry from how I started out in the world of work. I grew up poor and had to learn to survive at a very young age. Despite qualifying for the university, I couldn’t attend because we didn’t have money. So I found work at a textile factory run by a Chinese company.
In the early 2000s, Swaziland was among the several countries in Southern and Eastern Africa that attracted foreign investment in garments as part a strategy for economic development. But, the textile industry in my country has a long and well-documented history of exploitation. Several reports show the impact this foreign investment has on the country, workforce and communities.
Worker abuse and exploitation are commonplace in the factories, which supply the global value chain. At the factory I worked maltreatment happened daily. Imagine old women being punished, scolded and insulted by young Chinese supervisors! I would watch in pain and cry. Once a manager physically assaulted me for absolutely no good reason.
We didn’t have a trade union to help us claim our rights. There was a strong union representing eSwatini’s garment workers, but it didn’t have much presence in the company. I argued that if more of us joined the union perhaps we’d be stronger. When a position for a shop steward in my department opened, I applied and got elected. I was 19 years old.
I took on the work with gusto. I held meetings in my department and rallied my colleagues. Workers in other departments envied the way we did things, and at the age of 20, I was elected chairperson of the entire workforce comprising 600 employees.
I was eager to learn and lead by example. Without any union training, I started winning cases. I was defending employees successfully! The bosses didn’t care much for our new-found solidarity and tried to cow us. But they were too late – trade unionism had sunk in my system.
I was gliding like a well-oiled machine. The fire and passion were burning amazingly in the once naïve and timid boy who once got beaten by his manager.
Two years later I was elected to serve in the National Executive Committee of the union.
Many capitalists the world over continue to use every tactic in the book to crush unions and often with great success. In eSwatini, organised labour experienced similar disdain from bosses. So, it wasn’t a complete surprise to me when at 23 years of age I got fired. My crime, according to the bosses, was participating in a national protest action called by our federations.
With guns blazing, I began the fight to get reinstated, but my case didn’t get far because the company vanished into thin air. The vanishing act wasn’t strange. Foreign investors in the garment industry in Eastern and Southern Africa could leave a location easily. Someone had even coined a name for such companies – ‘footloose garment investors’.
Shortly after I joined the union as an employee and found myself in the deep end. My task was to recruit and establish a union office in my region. This union office would manage its own budget and people. Not everyone welcomed the idea of a ‘newcomer’ as manager of an infant regional office. And these comrades were petty and convinced that I’d fail. But, to everyone’s surprise, we successfully established the regional office and got better results than expected. It wasn’t easy finding ground, I must admit.
Employers would undermine me in the presence of the very workers I represented. They referred to me as a ‘schoolboy’ because I was very thin. But with time I earned their respect because I am competent.
Fast forward to 2013 when some unions under our federation, the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland, decided to merge. My union was part of that deal. That September I was ordered to move to the offices of the Swaziland Commercial and Allied Workers Union (SCAWU) because we’d become one. And what a rash decision – the new union wasn’t registered, meaning operationally our hands were tied. Also, there was a lot of infighting to the point that no one bothered to orientate me. For 18 months I wasn’t paid a salary. I felt neglected and despondent. Despite the challenges, the thought of joining employers or leaving unionism never crossed my mind.
In 2015 SCAWU leadership realised my talent was going to waste and they asked me to join them. The truth is I was struggling and swimming in debt. So, I took the new role albeit reluctantly.
Settling in and thriving at SCAWU
SCAWU is the biggest union organising retail workers in eSwatini. In the beginning, I found it hard to do my job because some shop stewards sidelined me. They didn’t know me and my capabilities and thus excluded me from their cliques comprising union officials they knew. Some of the officials didn’t even want me to handle their negotiations and the union’s General Secretary had to intervene. Thereafter, it took a single meeting to win them over. The rest, as they say, is history.
Three years later, I am thriving at SCAWU. I have made a name for myself
, thanks to the support of my leader and colleagues. I am growing and willing to learn more about the conditions for retail workers. I want to be excellent at what I do so this year I joined the university to study towards a Bachelor of Commerce degree.
Attracting young workers to unions
There are many changes occurring in the workplace. The conditions for many workers are worsening. Young workers are ripe for organising, and many of them have joined unions. SCAWU’s executive committee has young members who’re attracting more of their peers to the union.
To recruit and keep young members, a union organiser needs to know the issues that resonate with young workers. Speak directly to those issues first. Later you can chant slogans. Also, union officials must upskill because we’re serving an increasingly educated and younger workforce. I am optimistic about the future of trade unions.
Want to become a trade unionist?
I would advise anyone who wants a career in this field to be selfless and passionate about the work. Understand that more than a career trade unionism is a calling. There are opportunities for growth, but the attitude must be right. Nothing beats love, determination and hard work. The heart must not be more on financial gains but on the cause. A greedy or money-driven trade union official is a danger to the movement. Such characters are susceptible to bribery. Don’t ask favours from employers and resist bribes. Be disciplined, principled and willing to learn from the old guard.