Shoemakers Suffer in Silence the Pandemic’s Impact

Over 300 local shoemaking workshops have disappeared in Masaya, while others are functioning at half their normal capacity.

Por EFE – Confidencial

HAVANA TIMES – The leather and shoemaking industry in Nicaragua still hopes for single digit growth in 2020, largely thanks to exports. However, traditional producers of handmade shoes are suffering in silence the impact of the pandemic. Fallout from this has caused sales to drop up to 70%.

The free flow of international commerce that COVID-19 hasn’t interrupted has eclipsed the hand-crafted shoe makers situation.  The country’s sociopolitical crisis, which began in April 2018, had already impacted the small shoemaking workshops. The taxes hikes of 2019 also affected them, and now the pandemic has dealt them another blow.

The majority of these workshops are located in Masaya. According to estimates, over 300 of these have disappeared in the last two years.

“This is the worst crisis. We’ve never gone through this kind of crisis. Never,” lamented Roberto Gamboa, the owner of Gamboa Shoes.

Gamboa is one of the small businesspersons whose workshop is functioning at 30 percent of capacity, he stated. Of the three stores that he used to supply, only one is left.

Zapateria Cano, also in Masaya, is in a similar situation. Its owner, Francisca Vasquez, noted that there’s been a considerable reduction in orders. The drop began last March, when the pandemic began to spread through the country.

“It’s affected us economically, because since the pandemic, business has gone down.  Before we produced some 400 pairs; now we’re making only 200 a day,” Vasquez affirmed.

Before the pandemic, the owner recalled, her workshop had a night shift to keep production at a high level. Now, that’s no longer necessary.

Other workshops have had to keep going even when an important member of the team has died amid the pandemic.

Workers affected

Gamboa and Vasquez indicated that, as owners, they have some cushion against the effects of the pandemic. They can adjust to lower profits, or use their savings. However, there’ve been unavoidable effects on their workers.

Roberto Gamboa affirmed that he’s had to lay off two employees. That doesn’t include his old friend Ramon Caldera, an older man who spent four months without employment.

“I was unemployed for four months. My family helped me. I sustained myself with the support of my children,” Caldera said. Now, with luck, he’ll managed to earn the equivalent of the minimum wage for shoemakers. This salary is equivalent to US $167 a month, a little over a third of the cost of monthly staples.

To avoid layoffs, Zapateria Cano opted to divide its 32 employees into two groups. While one is off, the other works. They earn half of their previous salary, but at least they keep their jobs.

“I don’t have children, but I help my mother and my four sisters. We’ve had to take some furloughs, but, thank God, she [Vasquez] keeps it moving [drumming up business] and maintains our jobs,” stated Elvis Flores, 25.

Survival strategies

Staying “on the move” to seek new markets has allowed Vasquez to stay afloat and maintain the staff in her workshop.

“I sell in the Eastern Market (in Managua). I used to sell in Matagalpa, but now I’ve gone further into the interior, the more distant regions. We’re maintaining ourselves there, hoping that December will be a good month, like always,” Vasquez explained.

The style of the shoes is also important. When the Zapateria Cano identifies a certain design that’s in fashion, it expands the offering. They offer it in the markets they already have, and also introduce it to those they “discover” along the way. Meanwhile, they also maintain their seasonal offers. These include school shoes, shoes for New Years’ parties, or now, in September, for the Independence Day events.

At Gamboa Shoes, where they also export, the strategy is different.

“We’re producing what they order. These are personal clients. Right now, I’m going to send a shipment to Costa Rica. From Costa Rica, they ship them to Spain. These are samples I’m making, because I’ve worked with markets outside of Nicaragua.  I’ve delivered shoes to Spain, to Canada, to the United States,” Roberto Gamboa declares.

Blocked from raising prices to recover their profits, the owners of both workshops agree that the key lies in constantly improving the quality. That way, they don’t lose the clients they have, and also keep the new ones.