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EDITORIAL - Reviving the JMA

Published:Friday | July 4, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Just over a week ago, Brian Pengelley was elected for a fourth and, he suggested, final year as president of the Jamaica Manufacturers' Association (JMA). He should make it count.

Mr Pengelley's tenure has coincided with tough times for Jamaican manufacturers - as it has been for all his recent predecessors. They operate in an economy that grew increasingly inefficient as the rest of the world became more competitive and trade barriers disappeared, or diminished. Jamaican businesses have few remaining ramparts behind which to find refuge.

Manufacturing's double-digit contribution to national output three decades ago has fallen to around 8.6 per cent, where it has hovered over the past decade or so - and in the context of an economy that has been largely stagnant. Indeed, as Howard Mitchell, an executive member of the JMA, observed in a report on Jamaica's trade relations with the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), which he authored for the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica (PSOJ), the manufacturing sector has lost an estimated 100,000 jobs over the past 15 years.

But for all that, Jamaican manufacturers, according to the Government's Planning Institute of Jamaica, still employ around 75,000 persons, or approximately six per cent of the workforce. And as Mr Mitchell points out in his paper, in the five years to 2011, the sector contributed approximately 14 per cent to all taxes. Significantly, too, Jamaican manufacturers have become more productive: an annual average gain, according to Mr Mitchell, of 3.6 per cent between 2007 and 2011.

In other words, there is economic value to be extracted from manufacturing. But it is not a case that has been coherently made, or clearly articulated by the sector.

It is not that Mr Pengelley, or those who came before him, have not spoken loudly or often and with passion about the value of manufacturing. But they have done so in a fashion that bears more emotion and anecdote, rather than empirical data, rigorously analysed, and clearly and persuasively presented.

It appears that there is an expectation that policymakers, taxpayers and consumers should, whatever the competing interests, appreciate, by osmosis, the value of manufacturing and, without contention, offer their embrace and garland.

Which, of course, is a shame for an organisation more than five decades old, with an established secretariat that used to be capable, when it had the services of an economist such as Wes Van Riel, of conducting its own research and delivering cogent arguments based on keen analyses, bedded in empirical data.

New policy direction

Indeed, one would hardly expect the JMA to make the case for the domestic competitiveness of Jamaican products by 'going out shopping' and having its president delivering comparative retail prices for locally produced goods during his inaugural address. That is hardly the stuff of empiricism.

And it brings us back to Mr Pengelley's tenure and our wish that the JMA be rebuilt as an institution capable of producing the kind of policy work worthy of the sector it serves. If the circumstances of the times render the JMA incapable of this institutional resuscitation, perhaps Mr Pengelley should reintroduce the old idea of its merger with the less-than-robust Jamaica Exporters' Association and the PSOJ.

Today's world demands, and deserves, greater policy rigour than is often on offer from Jamaica's trade groups.

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