Once a booming sector, garment manufacturing is now a shell of its former self and today chief executive officer of the Barbados Investment Development Corporation Dr Leroy McClean called for a renewed focus on the industry.
Speaking to industry professionals at the opening of a seminar on the apparel industry and economic development in the Caribbean this morning at the Hilton Barbados, McClean spoke about the state of the sector.
He noted that the industry, which once boasted employment levels of almost 4,000 people in 1981, now employs a mere 291 people. Between 1981 and 1987, employment fell drastically by 41.7 per cent to 2,229 and 23 firms closed as the fortunes of the sector began to wane. Shipments fell from $70.3 million in 1983 to $23 million by 1987 and slipped further to $15 million by 1990. During 2008, the sector exported $900,000 in total, just one per cent of the1983 figure.
As recently as the end of December 2013, there were 15 garment producers operating in Barbados, many of which employed less than 25 persons each and some classified as micro-business, employing less than five persons each. Exports were registered at $600,000.
McClean identified one of the major reasons for the devastating performance of manufacturing as finance, the limited range of products supplied by local manufacturing companies, and their inability to keep up with the times.
He said where large amounts of working capital were needed they were usually unavailable.
“Our local producers, constrained by high capital and operating costs as well as shortages of skills and labour, have found it increasingly difficult to maintain their viability amid increasing competition and shrinking market bases. A number of companies do not possess modern equipment or have access to training and find great difficulty in sourcing supplies,” he said.
“The inability to identify buyers was also noted as a setback for companies, as is getting paid on a timely basis for work completed. New product development is a major constraint and it is clear that product diversification and innovation will need to be commonplace among companies if they are to effect a turnaround in performance.”
McClean noted that while the demand for ladies’ and menswear is on the increase, people often turned to imported goods.
As a result, Barbados recorded $49.2 million in apparel imports from the United States, China, Trinidad and Tobago, Panama and Jamaica in 2013.
That high dependence on imported goods, McClean stressed, was due in part to the structure of the local manufacturing industry where the product offering is not only somewhat slim but dated.
“This market segment is still very much in its infancy in terms of its organisation and economic contribution. It is our intention to undertake a detailed assessment of the composition of production, both in terms of product mix and client base. The goal of local producers and designers should be to transition towards higher value added products and processes. Through more intensive research and development efforts, products should be identified that are viable, given the island’s competitive advantages, capabilities or potentialities,” McClean said, adding that the idea of brand development should also be thoroughly explored.
“In the same way it is argued that in the area of entertainment the nurturing of our creative outlets is critical, so it is for fashion.”
McClean said the BIDC has been actively engaging the Samuel Jackman Prescod Polytechnic, the Barbados Community College, the Barbados Manufacturers’ Association, the Barbados Coalition of Service Industries and representatives of the local fashion industry to identify the major challenges facing the industry and articulate solutions for advancing the sector.
“It is our belief that the time is right to harness and develop the potential to create a viable fashion industry with global marketing potential,” he added.