When the coronavirus pandemic hit the world two years ago, the global fashion industry crumpled. Faced with collapsing demand, brands cancelled orders worth billions of dollars and factories across Africa and Asia went belly up. Few felt the effects as harshly as the tens of millions of workers, most of them women, who stitched the world’s clothes.
In Lesotho, the pain was especially widespread. Although small in comparison with global garment-making giants such as Bangladesh and China, Lesotho’s clothing industry is the country’s largest private employer, and more than 80% of its workers are women, according to government officials. Most are the first women in their families to earn a paycheck, a quiet gender revolution built on T-shirts and tracksuits.
In 2001, Lesotho signed on to an American trade deal: the African Growth and Opportunities Act, which guaranteed it duty-free imports to the U.S. of clothing manufactured in the country. Chinese and Taiwanese companies built sprawling factories on the industrial edges of Maseru. Today, textile products account for nearly half of Lesotho’s exports, about $415 million annually, mostly bound for the United States.
“This industry made the women of our country much less vulnerable,” said Sam Mokhele, the general secretary of the National Union of Clothing and Textile Allied Workers Union, which represents garment workers in Lesotho. “But the pandemic devastated that.”
More than 11,000 of Lesotho’s 50,000 garment workers have lost their jobs since March 2020, according to government figures. The job losses were catastrophic in one of the world’s least developed countries, with 2.1 million people and few formal employers.
The cutbacks highlighted the precarious nature of the gains made by the country’s women factory workers and the industry’s reliance on the whims of consumers on the other side of the world, where clothing is bought and disposed of at a blistering pace.
The rapid industrial growth had a profound ripple effect across the city’s economy. Tin shacks sprouted like weeds outside the factory gates, selling garment workers everything from apples and beers to mobile phone airtime and secondhand clothing. Every morning, taxi vans full of commuters wheezed in from the city’s fringes. Landlords built rows of simple cinderblock rooms with outdoor toilets on the edges of the industrial districts, where the city slackened into farmland and herders grazed their sheep beside tiny corner stores and informal taverns.
“When you speak about this industry being devastated by the pandemic, it isn’t just the workers themselves,” said Mokhele, the union leader. “It’s everyone around them, too.”
Experts are uncertain about the garment industry’s future — both in Lesotho and globally. It’s unclear whether the industry will find ways to better cushion workers or will continues its race to the cheapest possible production.