13 October 2009

More Protection for the SA Clothing Industry?

Following a request from SACTWU, the Clothing and Textile Workers Union, South Africa’s International Trade Administration Commission (ITAC) has reviewed the import duties on garments. Its report concludes that the duty should be increased from 40 to 45 percent, the maximum allowed under SA’s WTO commitments. For several items the current duty is only 20 percent, and yet they would still get the new 45 percent rate. The recommendation covers virtually all clothing used by South Africans from socks and underwear to shirts, jackets, suits, pants and skirts; for men, women, girls, boys and babies.

This follows another recent recommendation and government agreement to reduce the duties on a wide range of imported fabrics from 22 percent to zero.

ITAC argues that these measures will “provide significant encouragement and support to the industry while its extensive efforts to restructure to become more competitive are continuing;” and they will have little inflationary impact.

ITAC does not show its estimates of the amount of support this will provide. My own calculations show that before any of the recent recommendations, i.e. with tariff rates of 40 percent on clothing and 22 percent on most fabrics, SA garment producers were being subsidized at a rate of about 94 percent of value added. In non-technical terms, this means that the tariff structure allowed them to produce garments at a cost 94 percent higher than foreign competitors and still compete in the local market. This is a very high level of support, higher than in just about any other industry in South Africa.

Under the proposed new measures, the subsidy will increase to 114 percent for garment producers that are still subject to the 22 percent fabric tariff. And for those that are able to take advantage of the new rebate that lowers the fabric tariff to zero, the subsidy will be 180 percent. They will be able to produce at almost three times the cost of foreign competitors and still be able to “compete” in the domestic market.

Does this encourage restructuring and increased competitiveness? No, it subsidizes high cost producers, and enables them to survive despite much higher costs than international competitors, with no need to adjust or to improve their competitiveness.

On top of this, the government is mulling even further subsidies to the industry. No details have been made available, but under proposals that have been mentioned publicly I estimate that the rate of subsidy could be over 300 percent.

It is difficult to imagine how firms that require this kind of support could be transformed into internationally competitive producers.

What, then, is the real goal of government support? It seems to be to protect vulnerable and/or a privileged subset of the country’s workers. But is subsidizing continued production and further investments in training and equipment to sustain existing jobs in non-competitive firms or industries the best way to do this? The cost is high. Clothing and footwear account for 5 percent of consumer expenditures in South Africa. For lower income households the percentage is much higher. A 40 or 45 percent tax on such a basic consumer good is a cruel and regressive tax indeed. While an increase in the tariff might provide further short-term relief for garment workers, it will be at the much greater expense of all workers and consumers in the country, and especially the poor.

A government official recently told me that one of the main problems with the SA garment industry is that the equipment is very old. The unwillingness of firms to invest in upgrading this equipment, despite current high levels of protection, would be a rational response to their view that much of the industry will never be able to compete.

I asked about the age of workers in these factories. The answer: “about the same as the equipment.” This might also reflect a rational response by young workers who see no future in this industry. It also reduces the costs of any necessary adjustment if industrial support is gradually withdrawn. An increase in support might not only impose higher immediate costs on taxpayers and consumers, but might draw new workers into the industry and increase future adjustment costs.

What is the bottom line? The government needs to move out of the box that views subsidies to non-competitive producers and industries as the best way to help the country’s workers, taxpayers and consumers. Let's deal directly with what is essentially a social welfare problem – assisting workers in declining firms – and free the government to think more creatively about an industrial strategy that points to the future rather than the past.

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