From riches to rags: Coronavirus brings Philippines’ garment industry to its knees

from riches to rags coronavirus brings philippines garment industry to its knees - From riches to rags: Coronavirus brings Philippines’ garment industry to its knees
worker garments - From riches to rags: Coronavirus brings Philippines’ garment industry to its knees
Many home-based sewing businesses in Taytay, Rizal have closed in recent months as demand plunged amid the pandemic. A garment worker is seen at a factory in Taytay in this photo taken on May 1, 2013. — REUTERS/ROMEO RANOCO

By Jenina P. Ibañez, Reporter

TWENTY-FOUR-YEAR-OLD Marie E. Llaneta’s garment shop in Rizal province east of Manila, the capital, was one of about 6,000 stalls that had to shut down in mid-March amid a Luzon-wide lockdown meant to contain a coronavirus pandemic.

Home-based sewing businesses in the province also had to close shop as a result, and the once bustling “textile avenue” in the town of Taytay with its cloth, garter, zipper and button sellers went quiet.

Customers remain few and far between as the shops gradually reopen amid easing quarantine restrictions despite rising infections that have sickened over 370,000 and killed more than 7,000 people in the Philippines.

BW Bullseye 2020 030420 - From riches to rags: Coronavirus brings Philippines’ garment industry to its knees“We had to let go of our two workers,” Ms. Llaneta said by telephone in Filipino. “We make very little profit and we don’t have a budget anymore for manpower because we have to pay rent. That’s why we’re the ones doing the selling now.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a severe impact on the Philippine garment industry, cutting exports by almost 40% to major buyer countries and putting the livelihoods and employment of more than 600,000 workers at risk, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Asia’s textile manufacturers have experienced plummeting sales, closed factories and lower wages due to the coronavirus, it said in a study released this month.

About 65 million people work in the textile industry in the region’s 10 major textile-producing nations — the Philippines, Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Vietnam — or 75% of all textile workers worldwide.

The global textile trade collapsed in the first half, ILO said in a study. Exports to the major buying regions in the European Union, US and Japan fell by as much as 70%. Manufacturers’ supply chains were disrupted, with shortages of cotton, cloth and other necessary materials, it added.

Taytay, informally called the “garment capital of the Philippines,” supplies a bulk of locally made clothes in the country, according to Mayor George Ricardo Gacula.

“About 60% of our economy is in garments,” he said in a phone interview, adding that a quarter of about 300,000 people in his town work in the garment industry.

The area also has thousands of manufacturers, from big factories to home-based clothing makers.

The town’s garment stalls could have lost at least P500 million in sales during the stricter lockdown, according to Roderick F. Santos, officer-in-charge of the Taytay Tourism Council for Culture and the Arts.

Some buyers that resell the clothing to various regions in the country are making their way back, he said in an online interview.

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“What we are missing are the walk-in clients,” he added, referring to people who drop by the clothing bazaars on their way home from nearby cities. Some stall owners have turned to e-commerce to reach them.

At the parking lots, hired jeepneys from Batangas province and cars with Central Luzon plates have been replaced with logistics trucks and delivery app motorcycles.

The loss of walk-in buyers means that related businesses such as fastfood restaurants and ambulant vendors have all lost sales, Mr. Santos said.

“The garment industry is the no. 1 tourist attraction of our town,” he said. “Last year, the entire province placed ninth in the country in terms of tourist arrivals. And Taytay, Rizal is a contributing factor to that.”

Ms. Llaneta has started selling on the internet, finding that while interest in her products is high, purchases remain low.

Making up for the losses, the Taytay garment industry started making and selling face masks made from retaso — small remnants of cloth.

“Our economy restarted because of upcycling, or retaso,” Evans Joy S. Garcia, a member of the local garment producers’ board, said by telephone in mixed English and Filipino. “A few think that this material can’t be used again, but we can use them to make face masks,” she added.

“The quality has improved as time went on, and they’ve moved from retaso to stock lot cloth to new cloth to produce face masks,” Ms. Garcia said.

The government has tapped local manufacturers to sell personal protective equipment. Mr. Gacula said the Trade department had sent them samples from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to copy and mass produce.

Ms. Garcia said the small size of the businesses had let them quickly adapt and shift their production to items such as face masks, but she was concerned about the low pay rate.

Two groups have offered them a labor rate of P3 per face mask, 40% lower than the usual P5 rate, she said. “We don’t want the seamstresses to have small salaries or they’d leave us.”

Prices of sewing materials such as garter and velcro have also spiked, forcing personal protective equipment sellers to increase prices.

Ms. Garcia said the government should help the local industry by regulating prices, offering training for small business owners and prioritizing the purchase of locally made products.

All Star Tiangge, where Ms. Llaneta runs her stall, started reopening its doors at the start of September. Customers can only come in through one entrance, where they have their temperature checked and complete a health checklist.

Neighboring stall owners barely make conversation to retain physical distancing, she said.

“It’s really survival of the fittest,” Mr. Santos said. “If you own a stall in the tiangge, what you might have earned years ago may not be the same at the moment. Even though it’s the ‘-ber’ months already, I don’t see that many people coming in.”

The Tourism office has been meeting with e-commerce companies to try to replicate the bazaar experience online with video clips of the stalls.

But Ms. Llaneta remains wary about shifting to e-commerce.

“It’s hard because not everyone who buys online trusts the photos. Some doubt if it’s the same as the actual product. It’s better if they walk in.”

While sales are down, she plans to keep selling the dresses, joggers and hoodies at her stall. “I’ll still sell garments. I have to.”

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