Apparel Sourcing Intelligence - Worldwide

US to review Swazi eligibility for AGOA benefits

The US will review Swaziland’s eligibility for duty-free access under the AGOA programme in May 2014, US Trade Representative Michael Froman announced on December 26. The decision follows a late October union petition claiming worker abuse in the African kingdom – but comes as Swaziland’s use of AGOA has declined to almost zero.

US union federation the AFL-CIO claimed the Swazi Government, which is not elected, but handpicked by King Mswati, had failed to observe the right of association, the right to organise and bargain collectively, and the right to acceptable conditions of service. “‘The Government of Swaziland restricts internationally recognised worker rights in both law and practice. The country has been operating under a state of emergency for the last 40 years,’ the AFL-CIO said in its petition to the US government asking for AGOA benefits to be withdrawn.

The petition came after the Swazi government banned the workers’ federation, the Trades Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA), broke up its meetings and arrested its leaders. The Swazi government had initially registered TUCOSWA, but later deregistered it after TUCOSWA announced it would campaign for a boycott of the Swaziland national election in September 2013. Deregistration, clains the AFL-CIO,  violated the rules of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) that Swaziland has ratified.

Announcing President Obama’s reaction to the AFL-CIO petition on December 26, USTR Froman said the United States took special note of its continuing concerns about workers’ rights issues in Swaziland and plans to conduct an AGOA-eligibility review of Swaziland in May 2014 to assess “whether that nation has made measurable progress on the protection of internationally recognized worker rights.”

The issue has come up before. Similar petitions made in 2002 and 2003, to little direct effect. But the country’s garment exports to the US have collapsed anyway: this year they are by amount, just a third of their level in 2008. Some Swazis blame this on complications in the way South Africa manages the South African Customs Union for obstructing the free entry of raw materials for garments: a more common explanation is downright bad management (by Taiwanese owners) and worker indiscipline, with a depressing history of violence-plagued strikes