When The European Union and the United States governments remove the textile quotas on Chinese exporters, the impact on Hong Kong manufacturers will be significant.
"These changes, will occur by the end of 2007 for the EU and end 2008 for the US," says Harry Lee, managing director of TAL Apparel Limited and chairman of the Textiles Council of Hong Kong Limited.
While lower production costs in mainland China have caused a decline in Hong Kong based businesses, many have been kept afloat by Chinese and overseas companies that are trying to off-set quota restrictions.
"It is most likely though that despite the additional closures caused by the lifting of quotas, a select few factories will remain in Hong Kong," says Dr Lee.
He explains that there are still some customers in the market who believe that a "made in Hong Kong label" carries more prestige than the "made in China" ones. This particular market is currently very small and specialised but it is possible for such a market to grow, providing that Hong Kong continues to deliver high-quality goods.
Although more factories will move into the mainland, Dr Lee is confident that textile manufacturing companies will continue to thrive in Hong Kong because of the region's skilled workforce. "Obviously, the cost of labour in China is cheaper, and that is good for some jobs. However, for marketing and merchandising positions, Hong Kong workers have the edge," he explains. He believes that Hong Kong's broader exposure to the world market makes the people much more adaptable.
Currently, the highest demand is for experienced professionals in merchandising and marketing. TAL Apparel, on the other hand, makes it a practice to hire and train inexperienced candidates. "We want candidates to be able to work their way up and we only hire experienced candidates if we have a specific vacancy to fill," says Dr Lee.
Every year, the company hires several inexperienced candidates for merchandising positions with a starting salary of approximately HK$11,500. Candidates are expected to deal with US buyers and so must have a good proficiency in English. Dr Lee has witnessed the change in entry requirements first hand noticing that when he entered the industry 25 years ago, only one employee at the company had a university degree. Today, every employee, outside of the clerical staff, has one.
Changing old ideals
Dr Lee explains that that biggest misconception about the industry is that it is on the decline. In fact, the industry has been experiencing rapid changes and many exciting technological advancements. "We invest a considerable amount of resources into R&D and are developing new fabrics, new process and even new ways of anticipating our client's needs," he says. The industry is constantly evolving and offers candidates daily challenges. "Although hours are long and the work is demanding, the best thing about this industry is that it is cyclical. Although we may be busy two seasons of the year, there are the other two where there is more time to relax," he concludes.