November 26 2012
Kelly Pike, Ph.D '12
When I think of Lesotho, the first thing I imagine is Rethabile standing outside her old factory during lunch. She had worked there for several years and was recently dismissed for being active with the union. Now, she’s a union organizer herself. She uses her right hand to gesture to the union members gathering for their weekly meeting. In her other hand, she’s clutching a plastic bag with three ‘fat cakes’ (fried sweet bread) and a slice of ‘ration’ (processed meat). It costs only R2 (25 cents). Garment factory workers in Lesotho make approximately $110 per month, and few are able to pay their monthly bills. The conditions in the factories are difficult, with long hours of routine tasks, very hot in the summers, and very cold in the winters (Lesotho has the highest altitude of any country in Africa). But they stick with it because there is virtually no other opportunity for employment. The garment industry is the largest private employer in Lesotho, yet its viability hinges on a piece of trade legislation with a looming expiry date. Ownership of the factories is entirely foreign (half Taiwanese, half South African), adding to the precariousness of work, as there are no long-term investment plans or firm infrastructural roots in the country.
Over the past two years, I have been able to travel to Lesotho to interview factory workers about their working conditions – specifically, their perceptions of their employers’ degree of compliance with labor standards. In addition to the difficult conditions that characterize much of the global apparel industry, an overwhelming amount of feedback from workers related to the issue of relations with their supervisors. Surprisingly, the supervisors they had the greatest issues with were local. Though the factory owners in Lesotho are all foreign, there is a mixture of both local and foreign supervisors on the shop floor. Thanks to assistance from the International Programs Office, I was able to return to Lesotho this past July to interview local supervisors and gain a better understanding of the factors driving their attitudes towards workers.
Supervisors were asked to share their perspectives on the dynamic with workers, the relationship between supervisors, and the pressures exerted on them from above. With this information, the goal was to be able to construct a story about why supervisors behave the way they do, and to consider the degree to which the supervisor-worker relationship should be integrated into our understanding of foreign management in global supply chains. There is often an emphasis on the actions that owners need to take in adhering to local law and international labor standards – but the role of the supervisor cannot be overlooked as they are the last line of defense to what workers’ actually experience.
On this last visit to Lesotho, I also had an opportunity to explore more of the country along with a factory worker, a translator, and Dr. Supriya Syal (neuroscientist and videographer!) Traveling through the mountains to Katse Dam, I was moved by the feeling that, though we have such different lives, we are similar in many ways. The four of us equally excited to dash out of the car and roll in the snow on the mountain passes, our Basotho friends dancing to A Good Night in the backseat, sharing stories about family, good times, bad times, and laughing the whole way at jokes that were funny mostly for how lost they were in translation.