A shortage of seamsters/seamstresses and other production workers in the local fashion industry is threatening to hem up earnings for the globally lucrative industry expected to reach US$2 trillion by 2026.
According to local fashion designer and founder of the Designers Guild Keneea Linton-George, on average the total number of sewing staff usually working with any one designer could range anywhere between 6-25 persons, figures which over the last decade have significantly dwindled to less than half of the required amount.
"We need hundreds of seamstresses right now! For the past 20 years I think we have been having a shortage but it's getting worse because what is happening is that other territories such as the Cayman Islands have been poaching our seamstresses because they are able to pay two to three times more than what we pay here," she said in an interview with the Jamaica Observer recently.
"Right now for my own boutique, we have about three sites that we are supposed to be selling to but unable to do so right now, because we are short staff, as a result, most of my current sales comes directly from the website and from other stores in Jamaica," she said to the Business Observer.
Citing the need for better delivery of education and training for workers in the sector, Linton-George called for the programmes designed to have a greater concentration on the areas of specific need.
"What we have found is that even though places such as GARMEX [a HEART Trust training institute] has tried to fill the void over the last 20 years, the approach has been a little challenging as the programmes offered are not geared towards persons becoming seamsters/seamstresses but full-fledge designers," she said.
Outside of GARMEX, locally a number of institutions such as Edna Manley, Annie-Gees Fashion, Ka-Ju Designs and some community colleges offer courses in dressmaking and fashion designs. At an introductory level, the skill is also taught to high school students under the home economics: clothing and textiles syllabus.
Noting that the aim was to train more than 500 persons in the area, Linton-George pointed to blossoming partnership with the Jamaica Business Development Corporation (JBDC) which will in short order see training being administered to hundreds of seamstresses, especially as the local industry positions to take advantage of an increase in the demand for Jamaican products, including fashion and apparel, from the global market.
"We have designers in the US who have been reaching out to us to manufacture in small batches for them; therefore, we're not only looking to service local designers but to become a manufacturing hub for this part of the region— but we need workers, particularly seamsters and seamstresses," she emphasised.
"It's sad knowing there is so much potential and opportunities out there that we can't immediately take advantage of. While we've started to see little spurts of opportunities coming at us, the problem is still that we don't have the trained persons to take advantage, which is why the Designers Guild through the partnership with the JBDC, we are now moving to get people trained. We already have some persons lined up, so it's just to get them ready," she also said.
The Designers Guild established between 2010/11 is a professional non-profit organisation which represents the interest of local fashion and design talent. By investing in training and a number of educational initiatives, the body works to improve quality standards, increase business opportunities and profitability whilst promoting a global appreciation for local fashion.
Some top local designers enrolled in the guild are Carlton Brown, Courtney Washington, Drenna Lunna, Jae Jolly, Kadian Nicely, Mark Anthony, Bill Edwards, and Rednarim Mirander.
Agreeing that a possible cause of the shortages could be linked to poor wages and general working conditions, which in some instances may have forced people to work for themselves, Linton-George stressed the need for workers to be paid above the standard minimum wage given the lucrative nature of the industry.
She said that while the local industry could definitely not compete with mass producing countries such as China, which supplies workers to fast fashion retailers such as Shein, it is important that Jamaica designers continue to ensure that the fundamental rights and freedoms of their workers are not trampled.
Highlighting the little but available resources existing in the form of training institutes and access to machinery, some of which have become a little outdated, the designer said that the local fashion industry despite its challenges remains poised for future growth.
Growing at a global growth rate of 5.5 per cent since 2017, the global fashion industry accounts for some 2 per cent of global gross domestic product and, according to recent data from Statista, is said to be valued at a massive US$1.7 trillion this year. Large companies such as Nike holds a bulk of market share, chunking out US$44.5 billion of world revenues annually. Other fashion brands including Louis Vuitton and the Christian Dior group also ranks high in global earnings.
While countries such as the US and China continue to dominate global apparel demand generating substantially higher revenues than any other country, Linton-George believes there is still enough room left for local and regional designers to unleash their talent and capitalise on new and emerging trends.
"We are growing as we rebuild from the hey days of the 80s, when we had all the machines and was top of the line in terms of our manufacturing and export of fashion. As it stands now we are operating at less than 10 per cent of what we are capable of and about 5 per cent of what we once did in the past. What we see now is only a few small businesses doing it for the love of it…as we are not exporting on any large scale right now because we lack certain capacity, especially those related to staffing," she further reasoned while shunning talks of imported labour.
"My focus is building Jamaica, using Jamaicans! We don't need to import labour, people are out there ready to work and to become trained. We may not have the full resources now, as we also grapple with lack of funding, but with the impending partnerships we are going to see more training and once we get that fixed, we will see a vast shift in the fashion industry," Linton-George said, while championing sustainable fashion among the solutions for recovery.