Workers in a clothing factory in Newcastle, KwaZulu-Natal. Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL
Workers in a clothing factory in Newcastle, KwaZulu-Natal. Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL

The clothing industry, which was the first sector to pay out Covid-19 relief funds in SA, said on Tuesday that it is manufacturing almost 14-million face masks a week and preparing to make other protective gear to help fight the pandemic.

The issue of personal protective equipment (PPE) has been a thorny one in the country’s fight against the coronavirus, with public-service unions at one time threatening to take both legal and industrial action against the government over its provision.

The government has downgraded Covid-19 lockdown restrictions from level 5 to level 4, calling on everyone to wear cloth face masks outside their homes.

The level 4 lockdown regulations also allow for key sectors of the economy, such as manufacturing, mining and agriculture, to resume operations in an effort to ease the coronavirus effects on the embattled economy. The Covid-19 outbreak has infected 7,220 and killed 138 people in the country.

On Tuesday, Marthie Raphael, chair of the National Bargaining Council for the Clothing Manufacturing Industry, said that, as of Monday, the council has accredited 388 manufacturers with a total fabric face mask manufacturing capacity of 13.9-million masks a week.

Raphael said the majority of these accredited manufacturers are “micro, small and medium enterprises”.

She said the bargaining council’s Covid-19 rapid response team, on Monday, approved a total of 217 micro-manufacturing enterprises for accreditation as PPE and other essential product manufacturers.

The micro-enterprises are located throughout the country and employ less than six people each. “They are all duly registered with the clothing industry bargaining council, and are mainly located in the township economy,” said Raphael.

On April 21, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a R500bn social and economic package for SA to get through the Covid-19 pandemic. Among the measures he announced were the continued assistance to small enterprises through loans, grants and debt restructuring. “The value of assistance to date is over R100m,” said Ramaphosa at the time, adding that an additional R2bn will be made available as support.

The president has said a further R100bn will be set aside to protect and create jobs, while R40bn has been set aside for income support payments for workers whose employers are not able to pay their wages.

SA Apparel Association chair Graham Choice said: “The localisation efforts in support of the demand for PPE has added viability for our local industries and has been a saving grace to many.”

Raphael said the benefits of the bargaining council’s accreditation certification process are that it includes free advertising for accredited companies on the “Proudly South African’s recently launched … fabric face mask portal.”

“Our bargaining council has introduced its PPE accreditation process to prevent unethical and unhealthy manufacturing practices in fabric face mask production. We cannot allow the Covid-19 crisis [to] be exploited for mere profiteering during this production,” she said.

Last month, the Competition Commission referred pharmaceutical retailer Dis-Chem to the Competition Tribunal for prosecution following several complaints that the retailer engaged in excessive pricing of face masks.

Dis-Chem has defended its decision, saying it increased prices only in response to higher demand and supply constraints amid the global scramble for face masks.