A queen with no factory

2013-02-03 10:00

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This competition highlighted the sad reality of lost jobs in the garment industry, writes Janine Stephen

When Lumka Vumendlini of the Ellen Arthur Clothing Factory was crowned Spring Queen in front of 5?000 wildly excited garment-factory workers last year, she was stunned.

The 20-year-old mother had hired her dress the day before. Neither she, nor the factory workers who’d chosen her, had money to buy or make one.

Unlike the other 52 contestants’ gleaming creations, you could see it had been worn before. And while the other women’s colleagues, and sometimes factory management, contributed to their finery, the SA Clothing and Textile Workers Union (Sactwu) helped Lumka pay for her hair, make-up and shoes – all just 24 hours before the event.

No matter: she looked wonderful. As everyone tumbled backstage to celebrate the 2012 Sactwu Spring Queen’s win, someone held a microphone to Lumka’s lips and asked her how it felt.

“There was this moment of absolute clarity on her face,” says Dr Siona O’Connell, co-curator of an exhibition on the Spring Queen phenomenon, now on show at the District Six Museum in Cape Town. “You could see the tears well up in her eyes and she whispered: ‘I’m a queen without a factory – no job.”’

The Spring Queen pageant is an annual event in which garment workers compete for the title of queen of their factory.

Between 40-60 finalists get through to the Sactwu-organised finals, where they compete to become queen of queens.

“Spring fever takes over the Cape Flats,” O’Connell says.

“Between June and November, everyone will know someone taking part.”

After her cousin went on maternity leave in 2011, Lumka started work at Ellen Arthur, a factory in Ottery that made clothes for Woolworths.

She was desperate for work.

“I have a baby and I have to look after him. My mom has four kids and can’t support us much,” she says.

Ellen Arthur made garments for more than 30 years. It employed over 400 workers, mostly women and mothers, like Lumka.

She worked as a line feeder, running up and down her “line” of 40 workers all day, ensuring they had thread, needles and other essentials.

She earned “R300-and-something” a week, but it helped.

But the factory ran into trouble.

Sactwu’s Fachmy Abrahams says it had orders but no cash flow to pay for materials.

By the time the Spring Queen semifinals came around, the factory was already on “short time”.

By September, it had closed.

Ever since South Africa joined the global market, cheap Chinese imports and the temptation to outsource work to countries with lower wages have threatened local factories.

As many as 80?000 jobs have been lost in the past decade – mostly affecting women.

“Many have been through a series of retrenchments. South Africa is haemorrhaging jobs and battling illegal imports,” says O’Connell.

“It feels like the lives of these women are superfluous. The women paying the price of these economic decisions are the women on the Cape Flats.”

Abrahams says between 80% and 85% of Sactwu’s 85?000 members are women, and most are single mothers.

Their biggest regions are KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape.

“On average, a worker supports four to five people, but it can be as many as eight to 12, if you include extended family.”

Former Ellen Arthur shop steward Washiela Gordon says many of her old colleagues remain unemployed or reluctant to take jobs at “non-compliant” factories that don’t pay gazetted wages or provide benefits.

“Everyone had dreams that they would retire there one day, and it just went down the drain. At least the Spring Queen was a positive thing,” she says.

Gordon persuaded Lumka to enter the Spring Queen: she says she knew the factory had a winner as soon as she saw Lumka walk through the door.

But the path to the crown was bittersweet. Gordon had to inform the scattered workers by SMS that Lumka was still competing in the final.

“There were many in the hall that evening to ensure that Lumka was not alone,” says Abrahams.

“Never in our wildest imagination did we think that Lumka would win – she had a one-in-53 chance.”

The Monday after the pageant, the winners traditionally parade on their factory floors. Lumka had to join her princesses at their workplaces instead.

But Gordon later organised a get-together in a hotel hall in Grassy Park and 100 former colleagues were there to see Lumka sashay up and down.

“I got to see those I didn’t speak to on the night because I was so busy crying,” Lumka says. “It was special: they said congrats, you made us proud.”

One of her prizes was a bursary and she is now studying business management and no longer plans to work in a factory. She’ll get into business or become a model.

O’Connell believes the pageant is not only a rich source of worker history, it can also realise dreams.

“If you want to imagine a country free of stereotypical notions of beauty, gender, class and even race, you need to look to a place like the Spring Queen,” she says. “There’s?freedom of bodies and dreams. There are women who are bigger than others, or older, or women who’ve had seven children – but everyone there believes that anyone who enters could win.”

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