Imports

Cheap footwear imports benefit ordinary Sri Lankans

Sri Lanka's footwear industry has written to the Director General of Customs requesting a crack down on illegal imports of footwear.

The industry claims that Sri Lanka is losing over US $112.5 million annually in foreign exchange as a result of cheap footwear imports from China and India. The industry estimates that the state should have gained revenue of around Rs. 9 billion if proper taxes had been paid on the import shoes

Local manufacturers are supposed to be on the verge of collapse as they cannot compete.

The industry has made repeated calls for protection following the reduction of duties on imported sports shoes in the 2011 budget. Successive governments since 2002 have introduced tariff barriers to protect the local footwear industry but some duties were reduced in 2011.

Shoe makers claim that illegal imports are mainly factory overruns, stock lots and inferior quality products and are available in the market for less than Rs. 750 which is below the minimum total custom tariff on footwear (CESS Rs. 600 +PAL + VAT and NBT). Consumers who were befuddled as to why shoes are so expensive in Sri Lanka now know why.

Yet, only last month the Minister of Industry and Commerce Rishad Bathiudeen, speaking at the Footwear & Leather Fair remarked that Sri Lanka's footwear and leather exports have increased by 28% in 2016. "Our footwear and leather exports in 2016 increased by 28% in comparison to 2015 revenues to $140 Million showing strong growth trends”.

It is clear that the problem is not as straightforward as the industry claims. The local shoe industry seems to succeed competing, at least on some level in the global market. If they compete abroad they should be able to compete in the domestic market, why is there a need for protection? 

Let us try to assess the relative benefits and costs of protecting the local shoe industry.

The industry maintains that letting consumers buy cheap imported shoes threatens the jobs of 40,000 people employed in the industry island wide.  The producers have requested that the duty structure that prevailing before 2011 be reintroduced. Duty on shoes was 30 per cent or Rs. 1000 per pair whichever was higher. Addition to duty, a CESS of Rs. 500 was levied per pair. 

This is a significant additional cost that consumers are burdened with. Additional costs will be a source of particular anguish to the parents of the four million children who attend school and whose shoes would need to be changed almost every year. All children have in common a constant need for new clothes and shoes as they grow. Kitting out youngsters for school can be expensive; those who participate in sports may require several different types of shoes, placing a heavy strain on family budgets.

The effect of import duties is to raise the price of both foreign products and domestic goods. These policies may “save” the 40,000 jobs in the industry, but only at the expense of the overall welfare of consumers. The annual shoe requirement locally is around 40 million pairs; a greater part of the population needs to pay higher prices on shoes in order to support the footwear industry.

Trade protection temporarily helps some producers, but it cannot do this without harming others. Who is affected by higher import duties? First consumers who either buy an imported shoe or a local shoe sold at a high price. Remember it is not just a case of an imported shoe being sold at a high price and consumers turning to local shoes instead. The purpose of the duty is to enable local products to be sold at higher prices (benefiting manufacturers) than would otherwise be possible.

Since they pay higher prices, consumers would have less money to spend on other goods, indirectly hurting various other trades. Due to high prices people will buy less; they will manage with broken or worn out shoes without replacement. Shoe traders and retailers, who sell imported shoes, will also suffer from reduced business.

Various arguments are put forth to support protectionism; to protect sunrise (infant) industries, sunset (declining) industries, strategic industries (energy, water, food etc.), save jobs or deter unfair competition.

When firms within certain industries call for protection, for whatever reason, policymakers must view the issue from the perspective of the consumers as well and weight the relative merits of the claim. Consumers do not form associations and lobby for their interests, unlike businesses, so Governments are under little pressure to look after consumer interests. Yet, in most instances the number of consumers far outweighs the number of producers or the number of jobs concerned. Often, the real goal of the industry is to gain security through the removal of competition.

Certainly, if duties are lowered, some workers in the footwear industry may lose their jobs and some or all of the firms may be forced to close by the foreign competition. The indsutry claims that 2000 cottage type businesses may have to close.

Workers will have to look for employment elsewhere. However, other job opportunities will be made available since the money that consumers previously had to pay for duties could be used to buy new products or services or consume more of already existing products and services. Employment is created in other sectors because resources will flow to areas that consumers consider being of highest value to them. 

It is rather ironic that while the industry focuses on opening markets abroad it is keen to keep the domestic market as protected as possible, in the interest of maximising exports and minimising "harmful" imports. It is fortunate that the export destinations for Sri Lanka's shoes are more open than Sri Lankas' home market.

In general, tariffs promote the production of items in which a nation is inefficient and deter other production lines in which the country has a comparative advantage. By reducing tariffs, things that could be produced more efficiently in one country would be made there and items that could be purchased less expensively abroad would be imported.

In the 1950’s, Britain attempted to protect its famed Lancashire textile industry through restraints on imports.  At best, this may have prolonged its decline, but it did nothing stop it.  Low-cost textiles were being made on a mass scale by foreign competitors.  Eventually the Britain’s textile industry moved to high added value luxury and designer products that sold at a premium in both domestic and foreign markets.  Some UK textile products have become world-beaters, without the need for subsidies or tariffs to protect the jobs they sustain.

Some of Sri Lanka’s shoe exporters are already competing effectively in the world market. Reducing import duties on shoes would benefit consumers and would spur the local industry to improve efficiency and towards greater innovation, to the long term advantage of all concerned.

A version of this article previously appeared in the Ceylon Daily News.


Ravi Ratnasabapathy is a Fellow of the Advocata Institute and a management accountant by Training.