Coordinated response can protect African garments industry from coronavirus fallout

Workers sew clothes inside the Indochine Apparel PLC textile factory in Hawassa Industrial Park in Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples region, Ethiopia REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri -
Exports of African textiles and garments have grown rapidly over the past decade, but US and European orders for African garments have dried up as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
As we have argued in a recent paper, there are three main options to protect African workers who face the prospect of extreme hardship.
These are:
  • to subsidise wages for workers,
  •  a subsidised training package to retain manufacturing capabilities 
  • a retooling of garment factories to produce garments for medical needs
Each option requires different commitments from buyers, factories, workers, the public sector and donors.
In Kenyan, each garment firm on average needs $400,000 per month to pay workers. This could be financed through a combination of commitments from buyers, factories, workers, the public sector and donors. Workers may be able to take a cut to, for example, 75% of full wages. Factories may be able to contribute a share. The rest would need to be financed through grants or loans from the public sector and buyers.
A central challenge is to keep employees committed so they can keep working, or be re-employed immediately after the crisis. Without such arrangements, they may simply disappear and the value of the training they have received will be lost. A temporary retraining programme – consistent with strict social distancing policies – would raise productivity.
Benefits will accrue to workers, factories, the country and eventually buyers and consumers. Donors should be interested in maintaining momentum behind manufacturing, for example in Hawassa Industrial Park in in Ethiopia.
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