On the noisy, bustling floor of the CGM garment factory, a supervisor is annoyed. One of his workers is complaining that her protective mask has worn out and she can't get a replacement until next month.
The supervisor refuses her one. "There's a budget for masks," he snaps to a visiting reporter. "We provide one every month. We can't provide one every two or three days for no good reason."
It is a candid admission of the tradeoff between profit and health in Lesotho's garment industry – the biggest African exporter of clothing to North America, selling jeans and shirts to companies such as Wal-Mart and Levi Strauss.
The same tension exists in other countries such as China, Cambodia and, most notoriously, Bangladesh. But after a building collapse killed more than 1,100 people in Bangladesh in April, major brands and retailers such as H&M, Joe Fresh and Benetton are revisiting the working conditions in which their clothes are made.
Lesotho, a small mountainous state in southern Africa, might offer a better model. With the support of U.S. duty-free legislation for African exporters, its industry has hugely expanded in the past 12 years, now employing 40,000 people, the biggest private work force in the country. Because its workers are partly protected by trade unions and independent inspectors, it hopes to sell itself as an ethical alternative to Asian sweatshops. But factory owners here are warning that the global price competition is too ruthless to allow them any advantage.
Visits to Lesotho's garment producers reveal that their working conditions are generally much better than in Asia's most notorious factories. Most factories are relatively new and clean; there aren't any problems of child labour or forced labour; wages are higher; labour laws are stronger; and workers are better protected by trade unions.
But inspections by a leading watchdog, Better Work Lesotho, have exposed a host of issues: poor ventilation, obstructed emergency exits, shortages of safety equipment and fire extinguishers, unsafe storage of chemicals and unhygienic washrooms, chilly indoor temperatures in the winter, and verbal abuse by supervisors.
Masks covering the mouth and nose, which cost less than a dollar each, are crucial as protection from dust and textile fibres. Yet many workers don't wear them, either because they don't like the feel of the masks or because the factories haven't provided enough.
Their foreign buyers, mostly U.S. or South African retail chains, occasionally visit the factories to check the working conditions. But it is easy enough to fool them. "We only get the masks when the buyers are visiting," says Matina Mahobo, a 32-year-old worker at one factory. "When the buyers leave, we have to give them back."
Lesiamo Molapo, an adviser at Better Work Lesotho, says it is common for some factories to deceive their foreign clients about their working conditions. He recently visited a factory where only two of the 500 workers had protective masks, even though the ventilation was poor and the company had promised to distribute masks two months earlier. "I got mad and told them it must be done," he said.
Better Work Lesotho, launched in 2010 by the International Labour Organization and the International Finance Corp., has negotiated agreements with 22 of the 38 factories in the county, covering 80 per cent of the industry's workers. Its advisers inspect the factories, assess their working conditions and offer advice on improvements.
Factory owners and union leaders say the program has strengthened the industry's health and safety, allowing better communication with workers and greater transparency for buyers. It has also been introduced in several Asian countries, and could provide a model for the garment industry worldwide, helping prevent disasters like the Bangladesh building collapse.
"It's made a big difference," said Daniel Maraisane of the Factory Workers Union, the biggest union in Lesotho's garment sector. "Because of them, we don't have things like what happened in Bangladesh."
Most of Lesotho's workers have migrated from faraway villages to seek a factory job. They end up living in tiny one-room homes without electricity or running water, earning only about $100 a month. Yet they are usually the sole breadwinner for extended families of seven or eight people.
In interviews, the garment workers say the factories are so cold in the winter that they must wear toques and jackets.
"We're insulted a lot by our supervisors," says Ms. Mahobo. "They call us 'devils' and they shout a lot. I'd like to join a union, but I'm scared. When you join a union, they can fire you."
Lu Fang, an entrepreneur from Shanghai who owns a garment factory with 800 employees in Lesotho, admits he was unaware of the need for fire emergency drills and boiler inspections until it was explained by Better Work. With the help of its advisers, he has established a health and safety office, along with a workers' committee as a channel for complaints and dispute resolution.
"I'm still learning," he says. "They help us a lot. They train not only the local workers but also the Chinese supervisors."
Some optimists hope the program will allow Lesotho to position itself as an "ethical" source of clothing exports, attracting more orders from image-conscious North American retailers. But factory owners are skeptical. "If we ask for a higher price, the buyers will say bye-bye and go to Bangladesh," Mr. Lu says.
Most buyers are interested only in cheap prices, forcing Lesotho's factories to compete with Asia's cheapest producers, the owners say.
"I don't think health and safety is the priority for the buyers," said Diana Marinduque, a factory manager at Taiwanese-owned CGM. "Even if we make Lesotho the safest in the world, it's the price that matters. It's really difficult for us to compete."
Lesotho manufacturers say their costs are inflated because they have to provide a range of social and health services that the government should be providing. Plagued by labour unrest and rising wages, some owners warn that Asia could soon lure them away.
"Some day we'll reach our limit and we'll have to leave," said Lin Chien-An, president of the Lesotho Textile Exporters Association.