..... as formal jobs remain a fleeting illusion

BASOTHO VEND THEIR WAY OUT OF POVERTY

LITHA MOTSAMAI

MASERU – Five years after leaving high school, Thabiso Mokhele, now 22, is still looking for his first formal job. “There are no jobs out there Ntate and the few that are available pay very badly,” says the medium built Mokhele as he touts homemade earrings and mokorotlo hats along Kingsway Road just outside the Maseru Border Gate.

“I tried looking for a job around Maseru but there was nothing out there so I decided to create one for myself.” Mokhele’s job is not as arduous as trenching or the myriad menial jobs that most Form E dropouts lucky enough to get employed, land. “I buy my merchandise from weavers and mark the price up 100 percent. I pull in a tidy profit on good days. If there are long queues (of travellers crossing into South Africa), I make as much as M1000 a day and half that on ordinary days.”

The Maseru Day High School graduate uses his earnings to support his family – three siblings and his mother. “If it were not for this money, we would be in deep trouble financially,” he says. “I don’t know where my father is. Me and my sisters take care of the family. That is how it is.” One of his older sisters works for a garment factory at Thetsane Park, making export-quality clothes for the vast United States market.

“She doesn’t make a lot of money in the factories so my earnings make-up for the shortfall in our monthly budget.” Under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) deal Lesotho exports to the US about US$300m (M4.2bn at an exchange rate of M14=US$1) annually. The country’s garment manufacturing industry was established in the early 1980s by some South African clothing firms dodging anti-apartheid sanctions.

 

Soon after, a wave of Taiwanese investors landed in Lesotho to make the most of the cheap labour market and business-friendly environment. The introduction of AGOA in 2000 triggered a second wave of Taiwanese textile and apparel investment to arrive in Lesotho, this time to produce for the US market.

Lesotho's textile and apparel manufacturing industry comprises about 50 formal sector firms - 29 of these being dependent upon the export of garments to the US using AGOA preferences.  If the AGOA privileges are withdrawn, it is highly likely that most firms (if not all) could close, argues Joseph Setipa, Lesotho's former Minister of Trade and Industry.

“These 50 firms collectively employ approximately 43,000 workers.  About 30,000 of these workers are engaged in the manufacture of garments (and some textiles converted into garments) that are exported to the US under AGOA,” Setipa writes in an online article arguing for preservation of AGOA. Mokhele’s sister is one of these workers lucky to get a job, although the M1 400 they earn every month falls well below the International Labour Organisation Organisation (ILO) poverty line.

Like Mokhele’s sister, ‘Maboikano Semelane* is a factory workers at Precious Garments – one of a cluster of textile factories in the hardscrabble Maseru industrial estate. A high school dropout, Semelane is a textile machine operator. For her efforts, she is remunerated about M1 500 a month with her income depending on how many hours she worked in a month.

With that, she must provide for her son who is in primary school. She depends entirely on her small income to survive. She indicated that she struggled for years to find customers at her off-street hair salon until she decided to close it down and seek employment in the textile factories in 2015. Apart from hairdressing experience, she does not have much work experience and says she did not complete her high school education because she fell pregnant and decided to drop out.

Her not-so rosy experience in the informal sector exposes how unstable the industry can be, especially if one ventures into an oversubscribed area. She told Public Eye that the money “is too little” but she would rather earn “those peanuts than stay at home”. “It is better to have little then nothing at all,” she said. But Mokhele sniggers at the factory workers’ earnings.

“What my sister earns is actually a tenth of the plus or minus M12 000 that I make vending on this road and in the city centre on weekends,” says Mokhele. He runs a parallel small business on Saturdays and Sundays that is centred around downtown Maseru which is always packed with shoppers, especially at month-ends.

Mokhele dreams of acquiring a tertiary qualification in business but says he would have to do that after supplementing his not-so good Form E results. “I am hopeful of getting a business qualification but that will have to wait for now as I still have to fix my high school results. But it is on the horizon,” he says in perfect English.

The swashbuckling youngster’s winner’s mentality and zeal to force through his plans, despite the seemingly insurmountable hurdles stacked in his path, will surely please government which is desperate to chip away at ballooning youth unemployment. Official estimates show that at least 32 percent of Basotho youths who stream out of the education sector armed with degrees and college qualifications annually, are unemployed because of a rapidly contracting formal sector.

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