Here is a sad story:
Today Nepal has only one firm exporting garment to the US. A dozen other are trying to survive by turning their focus to the Indian market.
This is the same industry which was a big hit until 2005:
Through the first 16 years of journey, the industry with over 1,200 active production units in 2000 occupied about 7.2 percent share of the total manufacturing sector, earned one-third of the total export income, witnessed investment climb to Rs 6 billion and directly employed 90,000 people, supporting livelihood of 450,000 persons.
What caused the downfall?
In the new millennium, however, labor stir, instability, extortion and threats to industries started to add cost of production, contrary to the actual need of the industry, especially after the US extended duty-free facility to competitors in Caribbean and Sub-Saharan countries (2002) and quota phase out (2005). This started to take toll on the industry.
(add the impact of the end of MFA as well--see below)
What could have saved the industry?
Garment Association Nepal (GAN) had made clear that only three measures can revive the industry -- establishment of Garment Processing Zone (pushed since 1999) that lowers production cost; an order-based hiring system (sought since 2007) that frees manufacturers from undue labor cost and stir; and duty-free-entry facility for Nepali garments in the US (lobbied for since 2005).
Was this day expected? I think, yes! I have written about the sorry state of the garment industry several times, highlighting not only what ails this industry but also offering recommendations on reviving its past glory.
Nepalese garment investors and the government basked on quota system so much that they forgot how competitive its competitors had become (and how uncompetitive they were becoming):
What surprises me the most is the fact that our leaders and garment sector entrepreneurs have not yet realized the value of competition and the stark truth that the Nepali garment sector cannot simply compete with the big producers, who continue to take an advantage of agglomeration economies, from Cambodia, China, India, Vietnam, and Mexico, at least not in the current situation.
Instead of rectifying defective economic policies considering the changed circumstances in the market brought about by globalization, the bureaucrats are too bogged down and intent on getting the preferential treatment in the US market. It shows how misguided our economic priorities are and how ignorant and unyielding our policymakers are to change the course of economic policy for good.
The prevailing illusionary notion among the policy-makers and garment sector entrepreneurs -- who are already battered hard by the depression in the garment sector -- is that the industry can recoup lost jobs and revenues if they are able to secure special treatment in the US market.
However, what is hard to swallow is the fact that no such recouping would occur and greater revenue generation would just be a dream, unless a miracle happens in favor of Nepali products in the international market. After the end of the MFA, Nepal already has lost market pie to big producers from China, India, Cambodia, and Vietnam, among others.
Rather than addressing the constraints that were making the garment sector uncompetitive, the government engaged on a fruitless effort to secure preferential treatment in the US market. But, it never
realized admitted that this was a distant dream!
After more than four years of lobbying, there is hardly any progress. The policymakers are bogged down into this issue as if this is the only sector that would help stimulate export-led growth and employment generation. Exploration of other comparatively advantageous sectors have been overshadowed by the obsessive focus on securing preferential access to a market that is already flooded with similar goods from countries which enjoy huge cost and competitive advantage over Nepali exporters.
A senior diplomat, who is quite familiar with these issues, from the State Department opined that it is very “unlikely” that Nepal would get preferential access to the US market under the present circumstance. Unfortunate this might be but it is not surprising. By now the Nepali lobbying troupe has a fair idea of how hard it is to secure preferential treatment from the US Congress; despite over four years of lobbying, things have not moved a bit in the positive direction.
It should have been a clear indication that the entire effort might be a lost cause, not because we don’t need to prop up this sector but because we can’t do it under present labor and economic conditions in particular and the incapacity to fulfill enhanced labor, quality and environmental requirements brought about by increasing globalization in general. The senior official advised Nepali leaders and lobbyists to be a bit more realistic and not chase for something that is not attainable.
The illusionary notion that securing duty-free access to the US market would revive the garment and textiles sector is fundamentally flawed. Policymakers and investors should be a bit more realistic about our real manufacturing and export capacities.
This does not mean that we need to abandon the promotion of garment and textile industry abroad. It would be fruitful to look at regional markets, which has higher potential than markets abroad because of lower transportation and transaction costs. This sector could gain more if the same amount of political and financial capital is invested in lobbying to eliminate countervailing duty (CVD) of 4 percent in the recently signed Nepal-India trade treaty.
Expediting establishment of GPZs and giving tax credits and subsidy incentives to investors would also aid the process, though, to be frank, no one knows how much this will help the dying sector regain its past glory. To satisfy the never-ending fascination with Western markets, the government and the exporters need to look into niche markets rather than the entire garment and textile market, which, as argued before, are already conquered by competitive firms from other countries. Promoting selected products that reflect Nepali tradition and heritage would be one of the potential niche markets.
For more discussion about the garment industry in Nepal, check out this short paper.