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South African workers pay the price for cheap Chinese imports

From Nkepile Mabuse, CNN
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South Africa feels cost of imports
  • China is now South Africa's biggest trading partner, overtaking the U.S.
  • Trade between South Africa and China reached a record $20 billion last year
  • Cheap Chinese imports are damaging local textile industry
  • In the last three years more than 18,000 people have lost their jobs in the sector

KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa (CNN) -- China is now South Africa's biggest trading partner. But cheap Chinese imports are threatening local industries and thousands of ordinary South Africans are paying the price.

Trade between South Africa and China increased from more than $8 billion in 2006 to a record $20 billion last year. As a result China has now overtaken the U.S. as South Africa's biggest trading partner.

Unlike Europe and America, China continued to invest in South Africa throughout the global economic crisis, lessening the blow to the South African economy.

However, its investment is proving to be a double-edged sword because South Africa's once successful textile sector is now struggling to cope with cheap Chinese imports flooding their market.

The repercussions are being felt across the country as thousands of workers struggle to keep their low-paid jobs.

Even in a remote village in Kwazulu-Natal, the impact of China's growth is being harshly felt.

Sindi Mkalipi, a local clothing factory worker, irons 70 pieces of clothing an hour to earn $34 a week. She wakes up at 5:30 every morning to begin her hour-long journey to the factory.

She is the only employed member of her family and with seven mouths to feed her job is vital to their survival.

Some of our members are really considering to close down here and relocate their factories to other neighboring countries.
--Alex Liu, factory owner, South Africa

"We earn very little, but at least I can buy a pack of maize meal, some chicken pieces and a bus ticket," she says. "It's better than not earning anything at all."

In a country where more than a third of the population is jobless she is only too aware that many people would be willing to take her job.

The South African government expects a machinist in this kind of factory to earn a minimum of $68 a week -- twice what Mkalipi earns.

But Alex Liu, Mkalipi's boss and the factory owner, says he cannot pay that and stay in business.

Liu came to South Africa a decade ago with other members of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry, to exploit business opportunities. The irony of the situation is not lost on him.

"Some of our members are really considering to close down here and relocate their factories to other neighboring countries, like Lesotho or Swaziland," he says.

In neighboring Lesotho, the minimum wage is $32 per week.

But in South Africa manufacturers are either trimming their workforce or closing down entirely.

According to the South African Clothing and Textile Workers Union, in the last three years more than 18,000 people have lost their jobs in the sector.

With employers like Liu calling for a lower minimum wage, South Africa finds itself in a situation where it is desperate to create work, but unable to guarantee what the government considers decent pay.

However, South African Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies believes that although China may be shrinking the local clothing sector, South Africa and the continent at large benefit from its huge mining investments.

"China and the industrialization of China is what is propelling the mineral boom and its one of the major areas in which Africa is experiencing a growth surge which is, in fact, placing Africa as the next growth story after China, India and Brazil," he said.

That is probably of little comfort to South Africa's ailing textile industry, or Mkalipi, and other workers like her.