Chinese Wage Pressures, Unsafe Bangladeshi Factories Make Africa Attractive To Clothing Brands

Chinese Wage Pressures, Unsafe Bangladeshi Factories Make Africa Attractive To Clothing Brands

Wage pressures in China and safety issues in Bangladeshi garment factories are making Africa — especially East Africa — look increasingly attractive to U.S. clothing manufacturers, but poor infrastructure remains a challenge, according to a report in How We Made It In Africa.

Asian countries – especially Bangladesh and China – are top sourcing destinations for clothing production, but social and economic challenges are making them less attractive to global brands, the report said. These include workplace accidents like the collapse of a Bangladesh factory three years ago that left 1,138 people dead, rising Chinese production costs and labor-rights violations.

Little progress has been made to improve labor conditions for Bangladeshi garment workers since the fatal collapse, according to the Asia Floor Wage Alliance. The Guardian reported.

American clothing giant Phillips-Van Heusen Corporation, which owns the Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein brands, sources 5-to-6 percent of its global production from Africa.

“We believe that production could grow… over the next five years to something that would approach over 25 percent,” said company CEO Emanuel Chirico during a panel discussion at last week’s U.S.-Africa Business Forum in New York.

Africa entire textile/clothing market is worth more than $31 billion and accounts for the second largest number of jobs in developing countries after agriculture, according to African Development Bank. In the next five years, the industry could generate $15.5 billion revenue, Ventures Africa reported.

Eastern Africa in particular is a clothing production destination, thanks in part to strong public-private partnerships, Chirico said. His company is already manufacturing in Kenya and recently set up a factory in Ethiopia’s Hawassa Industrial Park, a mega facility located 275 kilometers southeast of Addis Ababa.

“East Africa for us really shows great promise – and it is for a number of reasons,” Chirico said. “One is the partnership that has been built between the industry, government and also the donor base to really invest behind the training of workers and to make sure the facilities are set up in the appropriate way, from a corporate social responsibility point of view.”

Labor is abundant and well educated in Ethiopia, the second-most populous African country. Companies such as Sweden’s clothing retailer H&M and U.K.-based Tesco, the world’s third-largest retailer, are sourcing garments there. Ethiopia has cost advantages: low labor wages, relatively cheap work-permit visas for foreigners, and low electricity prices boosted by investment in renewable energy, according to McKinsey.

H&M started sourcing for Ethiopian garment producers in 2013. The company set up offices in Addis Ababa to get closer to suppliers. About 60,000 jobs have been created since H&M began chain operations there. Labor is cheap in Africa compared with the increasing wages in Asia so more companies will be looking to move operations to Africa, according to Ventures Africa.

“The government is willing to make investments in infrastructure as we move forward, and then of course the natural resources that exist are critical for us to have a vertical operation,” Chirico said.

Challenges in China – rising costs, moving from light manufacturing to heavy manufacturing of electronics and technology – are putting pressure on wages and on shortage of labor, Chirico said at the forum.

In Bangladesh, investment by the government and manufacturing base is lacking “to really bring that industry even further forward. So we see issues in factory safety, employee rights, and making sure the workers are taken care of in the appropriate way,” Chirico said.

Ethiopia and Kenya benefit from duty free access to the U.S. market under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). Both could compete globally in apparel manufacturing, according to research firm McKinsey & Company.

East Africa should invest in infrastructure, supporting local entrepreneurs, diversifying free-trade agreements and building market-oriented educational institutions if it wants to see sustainable growth in garment manufacturing, McKinsey said, according to ENCA.

Suppliers need to upgrade their facilities and enter into long-term partnerships with buyers. Buyers need to evaluate the region as a true strategic option rather than just a testing ground.