A new government study has found that more than half of workers in Swaziland’s garment industry are living with HIV, and officials are realizing that the once-hailed promise of manufacturing employment has become a financial and medical nightmare for tens of thousands of Swazi women.
“HIV prevalence among factory workers is 50.3 percent,” said Nhlanhla Nhlabatsi, an epidemiologist with the Ministry of Health. Nhlabatsi presented the data last week as preliminary findings for Swaziland’s first Behaviour Sentinel Surveillance Report to be released in its entirety later in the year.
About 30,000 Swazis, mostly women, are employed in garment factories financed by Taiwanese investors and operated by managers from mainland China.
The survey also found that most factory workers were well informed about HIV/AIDS, and 90 percent of workers interviewed were aware of the female condom and other methods of preventing HIV.
Government officials will now begin investigating the gap between knowledge of HIV/AIDS prevention and workers’ susceptibility to HIV. The prevalence rate for textile industry employees is significantly higher than the 26 percent rate among sexually active adult Swazis.
“Women comprise the largest number of workers at the garment industry plants. They work long hours at wages so low some of them are known to turn to prostitution to support themselves and their families,” said Alicia Simelane, an HIV testing and counselling officer at the Matsapha Industrial Estate, where Swaziland’s industry is concentrated outside the commercial hub of Manzini.
The link between “sweatshop” wages and the risk of HIV has been known for years, but the statistical impact of the risk is only becoming apparent now.
The garment factories began renting government-built factory shells in the late 1990s and early 2000s to take advantage of Swaziland’s trade agreement with the United States, which under the African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA), allows textile goods made in the country to enter the US without import taxes.
According to the US Department of Commerce, the value of Swaziland's AGOA exports increased nearly threefold, from US$65 million in 2001 to a peak of $199 million in 2005. Now the country’s fortunes have declined: by 2007 Swaziland's AGOA exports were only $141 million, and by 2009 had almost halved to $101 million.
A strengthening of the local currency - the Lilangeni, which is pegged to the South African rand - combined with the global economic slowdown, resulted in a steep decline in orders. Factories, some of which were built at government expense and rented at very low cost to encourage businesses to set up in the country, have closed.
Matsapha-based garment factories contacted by IRIN/PlusNews would not comment on the record, but indicated that they complied with health and safety standards.
“The activity that causes AIDS is not done at the workplace. We are not responsible for the private lives of our employees,” said the manager of one firm.
|Men come to Matsapha and find commercial prostitutes. But some prefer the working women because we are seen as 'clean'. I have gone out with some men because I had to eat.|
AIDS activists acknowledged that the factories had cooperated with HIV prevention campaigns, allowing NGOs to interact with the workers and distribute educational material at factories.
Although most of the workers knew how to prevent HIV, their circumstances did not allow them to practise this. Wages for part-time workers can be as low as $56 a month, and rarely top $223 a month for factory-floor workers.
“My dates do not like to use condoms, so I cannot make them,” said Thabsile Dlamini, a 28-year-old mother of two. She describes her relationships with men as informal, and says she accepts money and gifts from them.
“It helps me buy food for the little ones. They are old enough to enter school. They need to have their fees paid.”
Another worker who is married would not give her name for fear her husband would learn of her activities, although he provides no financial support for her and their two-year old daughter.
“Men come to Matsapha and find commercial prostitutes. But some prefer the working women because we are seen as ‘clean’. I have gone out with some men because I had to eat. I have gone for counselling. I have taken the HIV test. I am HIV negative now, but they told me it is only a matter of time before I become infected if I have [unprotected] sex. But I know this without anyone telling me,” she told IRIN/PlusNews.