The last week of textile workers' strikes has seen Swaziland's most intense wave of labour militancy in a decade.
Over 16,000, mostly female, workers have been on strike since March 3rd with workers participating in marches confronting police using clubs and teargas. At least a dozen have been reported injured. 93 percent voted for strike action, while six percent voted against and one abstained.
The strikes over pay have exposed the flaw of the Swazi government's poverty-alleviation plan to create thousands of low-paying jobs by promoting the textile industry. President of the Swaziland Manufacturing and Allied Workers Union (SMAWU), Alex Fakudze stated that the textile workers had gone for a long time without wage increases, despite their meagre salaries. "The last time the workers got a pay adjustment was in 2005, which was 4.7percent and way below the inflation rate. We are demanding 12 percent this time around, and we are not budging."
Swaziland's textile industry is largely owned by Taiwanese immigrants, encouraged to come to Swaziland in 2000 to take advantage of preferential trade conditions with the US under the African Growth and Opportunity Act. Asian-owned textile firms, like the many located at the Matsapha Industrial Estate, offered the only significant job creation in the past decade. The low wages and ethnic/cultural conflicts have both been recurrent themes in labour relations from the outset, which has served to partially mask the class issue as a national one.
One Swazi worker said: "The Asians treat us like children [...] They yell, they speak down to us. This is not the Swazi manner of conduct. We think of them as guests in this country, and we refuse to be mistreated by people we have shown hospitality."
Local media reported that the Swaziland police carried out unprovoked attacks on peaceful marchers on the first day of the strike. There were several injuries after riot police shot teargas into a line of marchers in the Matsapha Industrial Estate outside the central commercial town of Manzini. Police, unsurprisingly, defended the action, saying some marchers had been attempting to stop scabs going to work. Some Asian-owned shops near the factories reported looting
On 5 March, several marchers were beaten and teargassed after textile factory gates were sealed with the locks being filled with glue. Unable to arrest anyone, the police randomly attacked marchers, hospitalising some. One policewoman was injured by a thrown stone. Alex Fakudze, told the Industrial Court on 5 March that factory owners had instructed the police to assault strikers.