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SUVA, Fiji (Fiji Times, Sept. 4) - Even with a 17.5 percent price advantage over imports from other countries, Fiji's garment industry is still shrinking, says University of the South Pacific academic, Professor Ron Duncan.

This was because the industry lacked international competitiveness, said the executive director of USP's Pacific Institute of Advanced Studies in Development and Governance.

Professor Duncan suggested decreasing "unit labor costs," through either a cut in wage costs while retaining the same level of productivity or increasing productivity without altering wages.

"The second way to improve international competitiveness is to find a market niche where consumers are prepared to pay extra to cover the high unit labor costs in Fiji," he said.

Professor Duncan said a market niche could be either in terms of quality that consumers valued highly and were prepared to pay more for, or by providing a valued service in the way in which the product was delivered to the market.

He said it was possible though improbable that the industry could return to the high levels of employment of the past.

At its peak, the industry employed 18,000 and had a gross export earning of FJ$320 million [US$196 million] ahead of sugar. Today the industry employs 4,000 and exports less than FJ$100 million [US$61 million].

Textile, Clothing and Footwear Council spokesperson Mark Halabe said the council agreed with Professor Duncan's comments on competitiveness.

He said the Employment Relations Bill would not help the industry become more competitive.

Mr Halabe said the Bill, which comes into effect from October 1, will increase only costs.

These comments came as Australian Higher Commissioner to Fiji, James Batley said the industry must increase its international competitiveness.

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