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Poor women workers battered by South Africa wage law

A national drive to close down clothes factories who flout the minimum wage laws is crushing women working on the factory floor – the very people it is supposed to help.

Some working in the nation’s Chinese and Taiwanese-owned factories make as little as about £23 a week, £13 less than the minimum wage. But many still need the scant wage to support children or large extended families, most of whom are jobless.

More than a third of South Africans are jobless. With its own industry in freefall because of low-wage competition from China and too few unskilled job openings, many women are more scared of being out of work more than getting stuck in badly paid jobs.

For longer than 10 years, South Africa’s jobless figure has been among the highest in the world, fuelling crime, inequality and social instability in Africa’s richest nation. And the global recession has made things much worse, wiping out more than a million jobs. “The numbers are mind-boggling,” Yale University economist James Levinsohn, told The New York Times.

The average worker in South Africa makes about four times what city workers make in China and are much higher than their counterparts in other developing countries, which has made people reluctant to invest in it. A recent wave of strikes hasn’t improved the situation.

As Chinese-made clothing has flooded the market, the number of clothes factory workers employed in South Africa has plummeted to 60,000 from 150,000 in 1996. And if the 300 plus factories breaking the minimum wage law get closed down, 20,000 more jobs could go. 

The women who work for them, also striving for their families, have seen their industry crumble. In Newcastle, in the country's north-west, 7,000 people have lost their jobs in recent years as three large factories went out of business.

Emily Mbongwa, 52, was one. She lost her job in 2004. She never found another one.

The factory passed away,” she explained sadly, as if describing a death in the family.

Now, she is looking after other women’s children. She watches five children from 6 am to 6 pm, five days a week.

Dubbed Africa's superpower, South Africa went into recession in May 2009 after a sharp slowdown in mining and manufacturing. The construction industry, on the other hand, benefited from a huge programme of government investment ahead of the 2010 World Cup.