Growth of garment industry fuels AIDS concerns

Lesotho's expanding garment industry is driving economic growth, but also raising concern over the impact of HIV/AIDS on job-hungry rural people arriving in the cities looking for work.

Formal employment in the garment sector grew by 50 percent in 2001 alone. Tariff- and duty-free export to US markets under the African Growth Opportunities Act (AGOA) has seen growth "transformed into a boom", a study funded by the UK's
Department for International Development (DFID) found in 2002.

Lesotho is a small mountainous kingdom of two million people, completely surrounded by its larger and more developed neighbour, South Africa. Jobs are hard to come by, with an employment rate of around 49 percent. Most of the unemployed are school leavers and retrenched miners who lost their jobs in the restructuring of the South African mining industry.

The garment industry has provided some welcome relief, despite allegations of labour exploitation by anti-sweat shop campaigners. More than 38 factories are operating in the country, and the sector continues to expand, with investment mainly from Taiwanese companies looking to take advantage of preferential access to the US market.

"There is a huge rural-urban migration of young people looking for jobs. Some villages in the rural areas comprise only the young and the old because of [the impact of] HIV/AIDS and rapid migration," said Gillian Forrest, Lesotho project manager of the development agency CARE International.

She explained that young women are particularly vulnerable. They arrive "from rural areas where there is some social protection from exploitation", but in the cities "there are so many transactions around sex", from securing a room from the landlord, to earning money while waiting for a job.

"There are huge queues for jobs each day [outside the factory gates]. Women are very vulnerable and can get sucked into the commercial sex trade," Forrest told PlusNews. "There is information and access to condoms, but when a guy says he will pay more money for sex without a condom, they say 'yes', because they need money to survive."

The HIV prevalence rate among adults aged between 15 and 49 is estimated at 31 percent. According to a CARE briefing paper, multiple sexual partners, known as 'Bonyatsi', is a common practice. By age 19 or below, 52 percent of women are pregnant and over 50 percent of first pregnancies are teenagers.

"Facing a devastating STD/HIV epidemic, Lesotho has exceptionally limited government and civil society capacity to respond. The government's AIDS programme is critically understaffed and underfunded," the CARE report said.

However, a Private Sector Coalition against HIV/AIDS (PSCAAL) was launched last year. It involves the Association of Lesotho Employers, CARE and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in an initiative to develop workplace HIV/AIDS policies, information resources and voluntary counselling and testing facilities. Prevention, rather than treatment, is the goal.

Given the importance of the garment industry to the Lesotho economy, as well as the vulnerability of factory workers, the DFID report recommended aggressive and comprehensive workplace policies and programmes.

"Factories should implement HIV/AIDS policies. These must recognise the existence of the disease and identify how the factories intend to respond to the disease. They must go beyond simply stating that the factory will not discriminate, and should lay out some proactive steps that the factory will take to strengthen its prevention and mitigation activities," the study said.

However, according to Forrest, persuading the factory owners has been a challenge. "There's a huge cultural thing about why they should be responsible. If somebody is sick, there is always somebody waiting at the door for their job. But we're trying to suggest that training people, who then become ill, is a waste of an investment."

Forrest explained that PSCAAL is the first programme of its kind in Lesotho. "One of the challenges is not being able to do things fast enough," she added.