Mexico’s shoe industry fights for survival against foreign competition


Leon (Mexico) : For years well over 1,200 Mexican companies have made leather shoes, handbags and clothes, without having to fear any foreign competition. However, the free trade agreements Mexico signed with various countries since the 1990s have opened the domestic market.

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And at the end of 2007, the last tariffs shielding the Mexican shoemaker from the "yellow danger" posed by China are to be eliminated.

A few days ago, Mexican producers gathered at a fair in the traditional leather-city of Leon and demanded that the country keep its China-tariff of up to 1,000 percent for an extra five years. Mexican President Felipe Calderon has promised his support. But is it too late?

Every day at midday, the production hall of the shoemaker Alfredo Shoes in Leon, some 100 metres long, becomes the nave of a church.

The foreman leads the prayer, microphone in hand. On the front wall, behind which the management sits, the Virgin Mary gently oversees the daily production of 6,000 pairs of shoes, boots and sandals.

For three minutes, machines and lines stand still, while the 350 workers request the blessing of heaven to keep moving the lines, which they toil at daily from dawn till dusk.

And the Mexican leather and shoe industry could well need the favour of god. Although high tariffs still protect it from the Chinese onslaught, many firms have already had to close shop.

Twenty years ago, around 1,200 companies were active in Leon and now only around 600 remain, according to Alfredo Padilla, the owner of Alfredo Shoes. Many people fear for their jobs.

Leon, in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, is the centre of the Mexican leather industry.

"Now most are going downhill," said Peter Kirschbaum, director of the largest Mexican shoe company Emyco.

Walter Hagen, who has supplied Leon tanneries with BASF products since 1977, is pessimistic too. "Death has started already," he says of the sector.

High entry tariffs of up to 1,000 percent apply until late 2007 but only for shoes from China. However, Chinese merchandise is already entering the country illegally, through Mexico's porous borders, directly or via Malaysia and Vietnam. Even Emyco annually imports 1 million pairs of shoes from Vietnam for the Mexican market.

"Only the big will survive the competition," Kirschbaum said.

The businessman, of German origin, has already experienced the collapse of the shoe industry in the US. However, he thinks his factory will be among those who can withstand the attack.

Emyco, with 4,500 employees, produces some six million pairs of shoes, boots and sandals every year with varying brands, for the Mexican and US markets. Every three months, 100 new models are made.

"We hope that that will help us in the future," he said.

Alfredo Padill, in turn, wants to face the competition with speed, reliability and especially Italian machinery and design. His top designer is Italian and brings all kinds of ideas from Europe.

"We Mexicans like the challenge, we are not scared and we absolutely do not want the government to protect us," he stressed. "We just want to face the same conditions as our competitors."

The Mexican cowboy boot definitely looks like a survivor. The complex production of the boot has kept Far Eastern producers at bay. They are made by companies with names like Botas Je-Ver, Botas Jaca, Pistolero, Rancho-Boots or Sergio Banano, with 50 to 200 employees each.

These boots continue to be made largely by hand, in various colours and shapes and from exotic hides – crocodile, cayman, armadillo, iguana, lizard, manta ray ostrich, snake and goat.

This type of shoe suits the taste of a particular, small clientele – drug traffickers. Lately they are also being exported to China, and to Europe.