A Time to Hope – Fighting for the Marikina Shoe Industry Heritage

While there is a resurgence in interest in Marikina made products, the main foundational issues still remain. So buying Marikina doesn’t necessarily mean helping Marikina. As with many aspects in life, we need to first acknowledge that we have a problem and recognize it before we can address it. Supporting Marikina by buying Marikina is a typical response but is no more than a band-aid solution to a problem which requires extensive surgery procedure.

Our local shoe industry, as with most Philippine based locally developed industries, suffers from being rooted in outdated business models. Yes, one can argue that we may have started utilizing the Internet and social media as well as online selling platforms but that is just changing the packaging while still having the same old machine running as the heart of the business. Let me just reiterate briefly the main issues of the industry as I have stated before:

  1. Outdated Labor Practices – most brands big and micro still practice the piece rate system. Yes one can potentially be “your own boss” who can earn a lot if you are skilled and persistent enough, but as I have stated in my previous articles, this is nothing more than an economic trap which usually has very limited opportunities for vertical movement. Those proudly Marikina made shoes that you got for Php1,600.00 from a bazaar brand had a labor budget of around Php200.00 split among at least 3 people. This is the very same system which brought down the shoe industry because at this time, we do not have the all-year round volume demand which the industry enjoyed back in the 80s.
  2. Limited Local Materials – there is a limited choice for locally made materials. While there are a variety of options in the market, most of it is imported from China. The outsoles options are limited and the new EVA and PU prebuilt outsoles are imported already.

    The main issue with this is supply availability. Since most of the available imported materials do not have a steady supply, samples/prototypes are hard to develop since even if it gets lots of orders, there is no assurance that there are enough of the imported components. Even if there are enough, once the local supply runs out, it is hard to say when the materials will be back in supply, making it difficult to market unless for limited releases or special projects.
  3. Lack of Professionalization – the industry lacks proper professionalization. There are no standards in place and no overall umbrella group to oversee the industry to ensure that our local industry in progressive in terms of quality and design. The lack of basic shoemaking education has created a weak foundation for the industry. While there are remedies in the custom shoe market, the lack of professional standards will definitely affect the commercial products in the long run.

    The lack of professionalization also creates a problem with continuity and issues with training new shoemakers. Without proper basic foundations in sizing and fitting, how can the industry create products which comply with industry standards to be able to meet basic customer expectations.
  4. Lack of Public Awareness – Marikina, being the shoemaking capital of the Philippines, prides itself with handcrafted shoes. Most of the shoes that are being sold by local brands are usually assembled mostly by hand still. The lack of awareness from the consumers further adds to the inherent flaws of the industry by pushing the industry towards a degenerative path. By supporting businesses which pushes down quality and underpay shoemakers in order to meet price demands weaken the industry instead of strengthening it. It also doesn’t help that the older shoemakers themselves might be unaware of the negative effects that some of their practices/traditions are having in the industry.

    This lack of education and awareness has led to the resurgence of old practices on all sides. From the producer side, shoemakers get paid piece-rate with no job security. This piece-rate system also keeps senior shoemakers from teaching the next generation properly in order to lessen the chance of training up their competitors. The brand/workshop owners still do not properly educate themselves and instead, rely on what their suppliers tell them resulting in misinformation and misleading marketing at times. On the consumer side, the lack of awareness in the mode of production has led them to compare handcrafted/assembled leather shoes to synthetic mass produced imported shoes being sold by retail and mall brands. This short reprieve is doomed to repeat the old mistakes and make new ones if we do not address it by injecting new ideas and processes which will make our industry progressive.

So those are the basic issues affecting the local shoemaking industry in a nutshell. These issues have been around for a while and we have yet to see significant progress towards fixing our industry. From what I understand, most businesses/brands that the authorities listen to are more concerned about making a quick buck rather than creating a sustainable process and taking steps to ensure that Marikina or even Philippine shoemaking thrives for the next generations of Filipinos to experience it. Here are some steps which I see are needed in order to create a more sustainable manufacturing/service industry in order to revive and protect our heritage:

  1. Professionalize the industry – The basic requirement to improve and grow our local heritage is to professionalize the shoemaking profession. This entails regularization of artisans; with this, you get a proper seniority system where your artisans can move up like in any corporate structure. The salary system will be applied in order to provide for vertical movement  for the artisans.

    But before we can apply this, we need to structure local operating standards based on international standards. As of now, the industry is using a system that is loosely based on the US system. The main problem is now is that most local shoemakers do not now basic international standard sizing so they rely purely on the last that is given to them by the shoe last factory. The shoe last factory operator himself does not know the basic standards in sizing and fit hence creates a problem where the sizing system is unstructured. The grading of the lasts are so bad that unless the workshop is doing purely custom, the production will suffer grading issues.

    Its bad enough that the international system uses different sizing standards, but not knowing those standards and even basic last measurements will become an impediment to pushing the industry forward where shoemakers are empowered by strong foundations and supported by a dignified and rewarding compensation system. Without job security and a progressive compensation system, no new generation of shoemakers will be produced since who’d ever want to get stuck in a dead end career?
    We need to first reeducate our shoemakers with the basics. Establish a professional “Marikina Standard” which will be based on either the US or the EU standards. Not only does this make a good practice to establish proper expectations from the local market, but also prepare the local industry for the world market. This act will serve to revive, rejuvenate, and protect the heritage.
  2. Regulate the business owners – To protect the shoemakers, we need to establish a culture of mutual respect. But there is a culture of taking advantage of each other which is still prevalent in the industry. Business owners push down compensation; shoemakers steal time and resources from the workshop; the industry espouses contractualization and the piece-rate system. Without basic regulation due to a unprofessional industry, it is doomed to repeat past mistakes all over again while eroding future chances of reestablishing the industry. It has to start somewhere and business owners have to initiate the change and weed out unwanted elements slowly while establishing a safe and secure working environment to grow future generation of shoemakers. Baseline operating practices should be set to regulate business behavior and prevent oppressive and backward practices.
    This move entails having compliance incentives and punitive measures for brands and businesses. Policies should be set so that the industry will have operating guidelines in order to ensure the dignity of our artisans for the better and brighter future for the industry.
  3. Develop the Industry – Proper identification and segmentation of the industry is vital in order to create policies which is targeted to help that specific segment or population of the industry. The government can help the businesses and shoemakers by creating policies for these players. Lumping together business owners, brands and artisans/workers together creates an anomalous policy where the empowered on top of the organization benefits while the base suffers. This is a reflection of world economics where the low and middle income suffer the brunt of the effects of bad policies while those on top generally have it better and the only time when they suffer is when the base dries up and they lose their relevance to the market.

    Budgets and grants to the industry will be misappropriated and wasted if it never even reaches the target recipients. If the goals of the program are not designed to help those it was intended to help will just waste the resources allotted to it. I know this is elementary knowledge, but how come waste is still so prevalent now? It is because our industries and policies are part of a system which oppresses progression. See this is about fixing a broken system. We have seen the industry fall during the late 90s. Lives destroyed and opportunity lost, this is the effect of a system rooted in weak foundations, supported by a system which does not recognize the solutions to perennial problems hampering the industry from reviving properly and progressing forward.

    Developing the industry also requires the development of our supply chain. Whether it’s imported or local supplies, the business environment has to be conducive to  free flowing trade of quality input/raw materials. Local industries should be given incentives to develop quality products. There is no opportunity for greatness if all players aim for the mediocre. Subsistence operations can help a company weather through various economic situations, but it cannot plant that seed that will bring about greatness which brings dignity and rewards for the stakeholders.
  4. Marikina Heritage Roadshow – Creating a heritage roadshow with the purpose to educate and raise awareness will help in preserving and progressing the Marikina shoe industry. This will showcase the industry and its various sectors to entice and educate others to properly support and invest in the Marikina shoe industry.

    The roadshow would include talks about the industry including local historians and industry leaders, basic information and consumer education for assessing footwear products, showcasing local brands and locally made leather goods to create and spread brand awareness, live demonstrations on how leather goods are crafted and the like.

    One of the main goals of the roadshow is to create opportunity for Marikina to reach out to our fellow countrymen and create opportunity for those who wish support the industry by investing in local manufacturers to drive up demand and hopefully scale properly set up production facilities.
  5. Creation of “Seal of Excellence – This brand recognition would ensure that baseline standards are met in terms of sizing, materials, labor practices, and after sales services. Think of it like the “Super Brands” of Marikina. This can also set the tiering for incentivized programs so that local businesses would operate in a more ethical and sustainable way. This also aims to give grading to locally made shoes and other leather goods to give a basic valuation and set client expectations.
    This is a basic move which can push the smaller industry players to aim for producing higher value products in order to give proper compensation to our artisans. This can also open the doors to proper industry segmentation. Mass production and entry level footwear production should be mechanized to reduce wastage while mid and high value products be produced by hand. Shoe/Footwear engineering and artisanship are two different things. While interdependent at the level of product R&D, in manufacturing things become different and improper appropriation of the production means and method can result in unsustainable practices which hurt the artisan base of the industry. Subsistence is a thing of the past, the industry and its stakeholders should be thriving. Shoemaking as a craft should be grown and nurtured, not squeezed and milked for all its worth without growing the grassroots.

This is my current perspective which is still being developed as I talk to other industry players while observing trends. Not learning from past mistakes ensures that we repeat them. While it couldn’t be helped that most industry players are enjoying a significant boost in interest and sales with more and more Filipinos being exposed to online catalogs and sellers via social media, if we don’t do it right this time we might not get another chance to protect our shoemaking heritage.

We have already started documentation of international standards and how they apply to the local market as well as a documentation of basic pattern tolerances for grading and custom footwear use. As most of our clients know, we have already adopted a daily wage system since the beginning and next year we will implement an informal ranking system to differentiate the skill levels of our artisans. We have also started taking in apprentices which will become part of our study to see how much time is needed fro an apprentice to fully mature. Currently we have a pattern making apprentice and a cobbler apprentice.

I believe in presenting and working toward effective solutions rather than just dreaming about them. Proper problem identification is key to effective solutions. Awareness of issues is also key to creating a more sustainable system. It is a lot of work, but hopefully we get to dialogue with the authorities in order to create more realistic, effective, and sustainable solutions with the budget that is given to them. It is about time we stop wasting government resources and grants on senseless things that will never impact the grassroots. 2019 is another year to try and make an impact yet again, another year to hope that we may save what is left of our heritage by growing it instead of milking whatever is left of it.


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