CLOTHING giant Seardel’s intention to retrench about 1 500 of its 9 000 workers has sent shockwaves through factory floors and wiped the gloss off a pact to breath life into the industry by creating 5 000 jobs by 2015.

In October the SA Clothing and Textile Workers Union (Sactwu) and Apparel Manufacturers of SA (Amsa) stitched together a deal for a 30 percent lower wage for new employees and for factory bosses to create 5 000 jobs.

But, citing a drop in margins, Seardel is now planning to axe about 1 000 workers in the Western Cape and 500 in KwaZulu-Natal.

Sactwu spokesman Fachmy Abrahams said the retrenchment could damage last year’s agreement.

“This is why we are so appalled. We took a bold step last year and we’ve seen a reduction in job losses, but this (Seardel’s retrenchment) is a bolt out of the blue,” he said.

He said Seardel had last month indicated it wanted to restructure. “We are now setting a date with the CCMA (Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration) to look at reasons for retrenchment and to see what alternatives there are,” Abrahams said yesterday.

“This can be a very traumatic time for workers, but we will engage Seardel. People must allow the formal process to continue so we can do our work as a union to protect workers against job losses,” he said.

The intention to cut jobs was laced with irony as Sactwu owns about 40 percent of Hosken Consolidated Investments (HCI), which in turn owns 70 percent of Seardel. In 2010 Sactwu pumped R200 million of workers’ money into Seardel and helped save thousands of jobs, including about 800 at Intimate Apparel, a factory in Epping.

Asked about this, Abrahams said while Sactwu’s intervention in 2010 was “purely” to save about 15 000 jobs in Seardel, the union was not involved in any management decisions.

“The union don’t have any official on HCI’s board and we don’t manage any of HCI’s companies. If we did not invest at the time, 15 000 jobs would have been lost. We had to step in,” he said.

Abrahams would not be drawn on Sactwu’s return on its investment, saying: “The primary reason we got involved was to help ensure that the company did not fold.”

Some Intimate Apparel workers, most of them single mothers, said they were deeply disturbed by the prospect of being out of work.

“It is sad. Where will we find work? We always hear about the company’s losses, but never hear a thing about its profits,” said Kariema Davids, who has 20 years’ service with the company.

Factory floor worker Jolene King said: “Many of us are not young any more. Many families will suffer because most of us are breadwinners.”

Manuel Fry, a cutter, said: “I’m prepared to go, but it is heartbreaking for those single mothers. I don’t agree with what the company wants to do.”

Seardel chief executive Stuart Queen said while its apparel division endured unsustainable losses in its attempt to avoid job cuts, a retrenchment decision was never taken lightly.

“However, one reaches a point where losses incurred are so substantial that retrenchments are inevitable,” he said. Of last year’s pact, Queen said Seardel first needed to reach a stage where its apparel manufacturing operations were viable before it could contemplate growth. He confirmed the company and Sactwu were in talks on the matter.

Amsa executive director Johann Baard said he remained confident about growth in the industry.

“Isolated retrenchments such as these appear to be atypical when viewed against overall developments within the clothing sector. It must be stressed that close to 600 jobs have already been created under the new entry wage dispensation. Among our membership, nearly double that is envisaged over the next three to six months,” Baard said.

He said government support measures such as the Production Incentive Scheme have contributed significantly towards stabilisation of the sector over the past 18 months.

“Within this broader context and despite the odd setback from time to time, the future of the clothing industry remains one of optimism and sustainable growth,” he said.

Source: Cape Times – Aziz Hartley