Can union organising help save Nigeria’s textile industry?


Funke Omoniyi Johnson is the founder of Mama Tee Fashion and Saidat Taiwo Oshodi is the proud owner of Sai Tai Enterprises Nigeria Limited. They are both self-employed tailors based in Lagos, Nigeria’s bustling port and commercial capital. Between them, they have amassed a total of 55 years in business. One would expect this is enough to propel the growth of their business, ensure their financial safety and secure their future. Instead they are struggling to keep their heads above water due to the continuous decline of Nigeria’s textile sector.

It is for selfemployed tailors like Johnson and Oshodi that the National Union of Textile Garment and Tailoring Workers of Nigeria (NUTGTWN) continues to fight. However, the NUTGTWN is also engaged in its own battle to stay relevant in a very unpredictable sector. At its peak in the 1980s, the Nigerian textile industry was a vibrant and thriving sector, boasting more than 150 textile factories and employing over 350 000 people. It was the third largest in Africa after South Africa and Egypt, and Nigeria’s “second largest employer after the government,” according to a report by Ismail Bello, deputy general secretary of the NUTGTWN. At its peak, its membership included over 75 000 workers, enabling the union to “mobilise on critical issues like wage negotiations, defending workers’ rights, improve working conditions and seeking industrial justice for its members,” says Bello.

Speaking to Equal Times, Bello further elaborates: “The current state of things started on a massive scale in the mid 1990s. In 1997, Nigeria became a signatory to WTO (World Trade Organisation), which meant that Nigeria fully liberalised the textile market. Before then, the Nigerian textile market was largely safeguarded and protected. But the membership of the WTO opened the space for textile imports at a time when the machinery in the industry was ageing and it was not prepared for the massive competition it witnessed.”

According to Bello, “the impact was almost immediate and dramatic,” leading to years of factory closures, job losses and general decline. In addition, “the internal issue around electricity supply, availability of funds and protecting the local market,” all played a part in the sector’s slump and stagnation As a result, the NUTGTWN decided that reorganising internally and “expanding the scope of its membership base beyond factory workers to include self-employed tailors” was a necessary step.

He explains further: “If the union had sat back and just watched [the decline of the textile industry], its structural power would have diminished. So to organise the selfemployed tailor was a way of compensating for the decline in structural power and build on associational power to ensure the union maintains its relevance in collective bargaining and representation of workers.” Securing suitable workspaces and dealing with the impact of foreign imports is also a key issue for Nigeria’s informal textile workers. Unfortunately, Bello knows that the challenge facing the NUTGTWN is protecting its workers in the absence of protectionism. “In the age of globalisation, the country’s hands are already tied to all kinds of agreements – multilateral and bilateral.

Bello says there are a number of issues which the government should tackle as a matter of urgency. “We think it’s important the electricity issue is fixed, for the imports that come into the country to do so legitimately and with the right quality. They cannot violate copyright issues because there are designs that are local, which people steal and smuggle into the country. All of those things kill businesses and affect the industry.” Implementation is also key: “What’s left is to be able to act on some of the ideas that have been put forward,” says Bello. “As a union, we are not giving up.”

This article was sourced from and published by Elitsha, Workers World Media Production (WWMP)’s news platform (www.wwmp.org.za/elitsha/home/), on 3 October 2017.

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