Vekile Sesha stood outside the rusted gates of a garment factory in the industrial district of Lesotho’s capital, Maseru, willing her luck to change. Four months earlier, the bluejeans factory where she worked nearby abruptly shut, blaming plummeting demand from the Western brands it supplied amid the pandemic.
She had loved the job fiercely: “I was doing something that was needed by the world.” Her monthly paycheck of 2,400 loti (about $160) supported a constellation of family members in her village. “Because of me, they never slept on an empty stomach,” she said.
Every day since, Sesha, 32, has been fighting to get that life back. On this morning, she joined a line of about 100 job seekers outside the factory that supplies pants and athletic shirts to American stores.
As gates swung open, Sesha and the other women surged forward. A manager called out skills he needed: “Cutting. Sewing. Marking.” A few minutes later, the gates slammed shut and Sesha fell back — she did not get one of the temporary jobs.
When the pandemic hit the world two years ago, the global fashion industry crumpled. Faced with collapsing demand, brands canceled 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, a mountainous speck of a country nestled inside South Africa, the pain was especially widespread. Although small compared with global garment-making giants 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, like Sesha, are the first women in their families to earn paychecks, a gender revolution built on T-shirts and tracksuits.
“This industry made the women of our country much less vulnerable,” said Sam Mokhele of the National Clothing, Textile and Allied Workers’ Union, which represents garment workers in Lesotho. “But the pandemic devastated that.”
All told, more than 11,000 of Lesotho’s 50,000 garment workers have lost their jobs since March 2020, government figures show. That was catastrophic for one of the world’s least developed countries, with 2.1 million people and few formal employers.
Mabuta Irene Kheoane still works in a Lesotho factory. Daily, she eyes the crowds outside seeking employment.
“I know those ladies are hungry,” she said. “They have kids. What if maybe my factory will close too?”
Kheoane grew up when Lesotho had a different export: the labor of its men. They left by the tens of thousands for the gold, diamond and platinum mines of South Africa. Money sent to their families were Lesotho’s largest source of foreign income.
But by the time Kheoane turned 18 and went looking for work in Maseru’s factories, many South African mines were empty or had cut operations. Women like Kheoane were on their way to becoming key to Lesotho’s economy.
In 2001, Lesotho signed on to an American trade deal: the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which guaranteed it duty-free U.S. imports of clothing manufactured in the country. Chinese and Taiwanese companies built factories on the industrial edges of Maseru. Today, textile products account for nearly half of Lesotho’s exports.
Industry effects are felt across Maseru. Shacks sprouted outside factories, selling goods. Taxis bring commuters from the city’s fringes. Landlords built cinder-block rooms with outdoor toilets.
“When you speak about this industry being devastated by the pandemic, it isn’t just the workers themselves,” union leader Mokhele said. “It’s everyone around them.”
The first whispers of COVID-19 came early in 2020, when Chinese companies supplying fabric canceled deliveries. Lesotho eventually went into hard lockdown.
For two months, its garment industry shut down, save a few factories that pivoted to masks and protective gear. To stave off total crisis, the government issued emergency payments of 800 loti ($55) monthly to permanently employed garment workers. It was barely enough to pay rent.
One morning, Sesha arrived at work to an announcement that the factory was shutting down. She spent some of her last few dollars buying sleeping pills to quiet the thoughts that raced through her head at night: Would her son have to leave school? How would she cover rent?
Kheoane clung to her job. Each day, as she marked T-shirt seams thousands of times, she thought of her family at home in Ha Ramokhele, a two-hour drive from the city. Her son, Bokang, stayed there with her mother.
Kheoane’s wish: “I don’t want him to work in a factory,” she said. “No one wants their kids to have the life they had.”
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 continue its race to the cheapest possible production.
Amid the uncertainty, Kheoane is grateful for the work. On her monthly payday in February, she walked out of the factory gates with a crisp stack of bills in her pocket. Each garment worker’s salary supports half a dozen people, according to development experts. For this paycheck, Kheoane’s son needed new school shoes, and her mother had asked for groceries. She got to work on the purchases.
On the other side of town, Sesha was home — no paycheck to spend. Rent would be due soon. Her boyfriend had been helping with expenses, and she was beginning to feel beholden to him.
“I hate it,” she said, plainly.
So on Monday, she would wake early, and put on the jeans and sneakers she bought back when her salary allowed such luxuries. She’d be in position at 7 a.m., when a horn wails from inside the factory gate, signaling the start of the workday.
And as employees disappeared inside, Sesha would wait. And she’ll wait every day, in hopes of work.
“It doesn’t seem like a job is coming for us, but we have to stay optimistic,” she said. “If not this week, maybe the one after. Or the one after that.”