Free trade helps a tiny African country - with a price

Next week, 38 African countries will meet with the US to discuss a trade pact that has benefited Lesotho.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Just after dawn, the women begin arriving by the thousands at Tetsane, a booming industrial area on the outskirts of this rural country's tiny capital city. Clutching lunches wrapped in thin plastic bags, sandals clicking on pavement, they race like worker ants to their factories before the 7 a.m. workday begins.

Like many women here, 22-year-old Agnus Mantopi was sent from her mountain village to find work in Maseru. There was not enough food to feed six children, so Ms. Mantopi, later followed by a younger sister, left school and set off for a job making jeans for Gap Inc. Every month, she and her sister each send home about $9, one-sixth of their monthly salaries. It's not much she admits, but it keeps starvation at bay in a country caught in the midst of a food shortage.

"Lesotho is poor," shrugs Mantopi. "We would rather be with our families, but we need money. And these days, the only money is in the factories."

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This mountainous kingdom of more than 2 million people set in the heart of South Africa is undergoing major changes, in large part due to a US trade law designed to boost Africa's underdeveloped industrial sector. In the past year, 11 factories have opened and several more have expanded operations.

But even as the country's standard of living slowly begins to rise, Lesotho is having to grapple with some of the problems that come with urban growth - such as prostitution, AIDS, and workers' rights - as more people flock to the cities looking for factory work.

Launched in October 2000, the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) knocked down trade barriers for many African-made products imported to the United States. Thirty-eight countries have qualified for the program by meeting US-set economic and political standards - such as having market-based economies, combating corruption, and improving human and workers' rights. But only a handful, such as South Africa and oil-rich Nigeria, have begun reaping the benefits of AGOA.

Next week, US agencies and businesses will meet with qualified countries in the tiny island nation of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, for the second AGOA conference. Attendees will assess the progress made since AGOA's inception, examine implementation problems, and discuss ways to expand trade and investment between the US and Africa.

Among the most successful participants has been Lesotho, a largely agrarian country whose textile exports have exploded. In 2001 alone, employment in the textile sector more than doubled, increasing to more than 40,000. Figures for 2002, though not yet complete, show similar growth, and a Taiwanese company is planning to invest $150 million to build two material-production factories next year. All this, US officials point out, during a period in which most imports to the US have declined.

"We've spent a lot of foreign aid in Africa, but it doesn't begin to do what AGOA is doing in Lesotho," says Daniel Bellegarde, deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy here. "All of the arable land is being farmed. There is no more land to move to, and each year the land is more depleted. If you do not have a mechanism to transition to a modern economy, this country is going to be in deep crisis.... That's what AGOA is meant to do, provide that transition."

But Lesotho's example also shows that the road to the global market economy is not always smooth. Factory jobs are highly sought after in a country with almost 40 percent unemployment. But union leaders criticize conditions in the factories and say that the government is ignoring labor and environmental abuses such as forced overtime and the river of unnaturally blue water that flows from one jeans factory in Tetsane.

"We have weak laws, and the investors are taking a chance here because we have weak laws," says Daniel Maraisane, general secretary of Lesotho's largest textile union, the Lesotho Clothing and Allied Workers Union.

While the factory day is certainly long, and 45-hour weeks are often extended when orders are plentiful, wages are high by Lesotho standards - a full-time security guard, for example, makes about $40 a month compared with $55 for factory work. And workers have legal recourse against unfair treatment.

There is, however, a huge cultural gap between the factory owners, most of whom are Taiwanese, and their local workers. Workers accuse their employers of racism, while owners say the workers chafe at the factories' rigorous schedules.

"There's just not enough education among the workers," says Jennifer Chen, head of Lesotho's exporters' association and owner of a large factory that produces shirts for Gap. Productivity among workers here is about one-third that in Taiwan, partly because workers are less experienced and partly because paying workers by the piece is illegal here.

Industrialization is changing Lesotho beyond the factory floor as well. In a country where many still dress in traditional pointed hats and thick woolen blankets, the vast number of women now going off to work is radically changing family life.

Single young women like Mantopi and her sister are often living away from their families for the first time. They can be subject to sexual harassment and abuse. Women like Marashalane Ramaliehe, a mother of two, have a hard time finding child care and frequently are subject to anger from their unemployed husbands, who believe they should be the breadwinners. Textile work is considered women's work, and more than 95 percent of factory jobs are held by women.

Some young women have also taken to selling sex to survive. Twenty-year-old Malehoa, who would not give her last name, came to Maseru a year ago from a village 250 miles away looking for factory work she heard was plentiful. But after months of searching unsuccessfully for a factory job, she now earns $100 a month as a prostitute. She sends most of the money home to her family, who think that she has found a good job sewing jeans.

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