Women of Lesotho’s garment industry lose jobs, hope in COVID
MASERU, Lesotho (AP) — Vekile Sesha stood outside the rusted gates of a garment factory in the industrial district of Lesotho’s capital, Maseru, willing her luck to change. Four months earlier, the blue jeans factory where she worked nearby abruptly shut, blaming plummeting demand from the Western brands it supplied amid the pandemic.
She had loved the job fiercely: “I was talented, and I was doing something that was needed by the world.” Her monthly paycheck of 2,400 loti (about $150) supported a constellation of family members in her rural village. “Because of me, they never slept on an empty stomach,” she said.
Every day since, Sesha, 32, has been fighting to get that life back. On this morning, with a furious sun overhead, she joined a line of about 100 job-seekers outside the blue aluminum shell of a factory that supplies pants and athletic shirts to American chain stores.
As gates swung open, Sesha and the other women surged forward. A manager called out skills he needed: “Cutting. Sewing. Marking.” But a few minutes later, the gates slammed shut and Sesha fell back — she did not get one of the temporary jobs.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit the world two years ago, the global fashion industry crumpled. Faced with collapsing demand, brands canceled orders worth billions of dollars and factories across Africa and Asia went belly up. Few felt the effects as harshly as the tens of millions of workers, most of them women, who stitched the world’s clothes.
In Lesotho, a mountainous speck of a country nestled entirely inside South Africa, the pain was especially widespread. Although small in comparison with global garment-making giants such as Bangladesh and China, Lesotho’s clothing industry is the country’s largest private employer, and more than 80% of its workers are women, according to government officials. Most, like Sesha, are the first women in their families to earn a paycheck, a quiet gender revolution built on T-shirts and tracksuits.
This story is part of a yearlong series on how the pandemic is impacting women in Africa, most acutely in the least developed countries. The Associated Press series is funded by the European Journalism Centre’s European Development Journalism Grants program, which is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The AP is responsible for all content.
“This industry made the women of our country much less vulnerable,” said Sam Mokhele, the general secretary of the National Union of Clothing and Textile Allied Workers Union, which represents garment workers in Lesotho. “But the pandemic devastated that.”
More than 11,000 of Lesotho’s 50,000 garment workers have lost their jobs since March 2020, according to government figures. The job losses were catastrophic in one of the world’s least developed countries, with 2.1 million people and few formal employers.
The cutbacks highlighted the precarious nature of the gains made by the country’s women factory workers and the industry’s reliance on the whims of consumers on the other side of the world, where clothing is bought and disposed of at a blistering pace.
Mabuta Irene Kheoane still works in a Lesotho factory, and she knows jobs like hers have become increasingly rare. Each morning, she eyes the crowds of women outside seeking employment. The line that separates her from them is razor-thin.
“I know those ladies are hungry, I know they have kids,” she said. “What if maybe my factory will close, too?”
Like most of the women in jobs like hers, Kheoane grew up at a time when Lesotho had a different export: the labor of its men. For decades, they left the country by the tens of thousands to work in the gold, diamond and platinum mines of South Africa. The paychecks they sent to their families back home were Lesotho’s largest source of foreign income.
Kheoane’s father left each January for the mines near the South African city of Rustenburg, where nearly three-quarters of the world’s platinum is mined. Often, the family didn’t see him again until December. After a while, he stopped coming home at all. Then, he stopped sending money.
News filtered back — he’d started another family. Kheoane said she learned to never rely on a man.
By the time Kheoane turned 18 and went looking for work in Maseru’s factories, many of South Africa’s mines were empty or had cut their operations, as mineral deposits became more expensive to extract. Women like Kheoane were on their way to becoming key to her country’s economy.