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Thursday, 10 February 2011

Chinese labour making T&T mas

Workers getting down to business at Legacy’s workshop in Woodbrook.
Chinese Labour has not only impacted on the local construction industry, but has been playing an increasing role in the local production of mas. Every year for Carnival, millions of dollars is spent by bandleaders on materials and labour out of China. Several costume designers and producers last week said it could cost up to $3 million to produce a Carnival band, especially a large band. For a number of years, China has been leveraging its labour and machinery in order to compete in the global marketplace. Using its comparative advantage to gain access to countries like T&T, China has been successfully attracting local costume designers and producers with its cheap labour, reasonably-priced raw materials, in addition to the accessibility and variety of these materials. “We do not have any manufacturing company nor do we get all the raw materials here in T&T,” said bandleader Mike “Big Mike” Antoine. Antoine, Legacy’s five-time Band of the Year winner, who produces all his costumes locally, said accessing materials is his biggest challenge. “I have no choice but to buy the materials out of T&T.” He explained that stores, like Jimmy Aboud, would only supply some of the cloth, and other stores like Samaroo’s Ltd and Tulip, provided other inputs used in the creation of mas costumes. “Therefore, we have to turn to countries like China to purchase materials.”

The cost of playing mas

Being in the business more than 20 years, Antoine said it cost him about $75,000 to produce a band when he started out. Producing one costume now costs between $1,200 and $1,800, he says.

Antoine, who said his band has a maximum of 2,000 masqueraders, said the cost of a costume was an estimate as there were hidden costs and major expenses such as music, food and security.

He said that in addition to paying his 30-member staff, security costs roughly $250,000, depending on the size of the band, a deejay costs between $60,000 to $75,000, and the bill for a music truck is $100,000. Antoine said producing mas is a costly venture and one will not survive in the business of Carnival if you don’t love the culture.
“Carnival is my life, so I market myself effectively. It is also a risky business, therefore marketing yourself is key,” Antoine said he has managed to keep his prices down for the benefit of his loyal masqueraders. Legacy’s theme for 2011 is South Pacific. Antoine said he hopes that one day soon, bandleaders would be able to produce a Carnival band entirely in T&T. He said more needs to be done for mas designers and to raise the standard of Carnival. “We need a voice to lobby for us. We need to market our product outside as well. T&T Carnival is the mother of all Carnivals and we need to raise the bar.”

Limited raw materials
Stacey Des Vignes, a director at the Oasis mas camp, said it costs 100 per cent more to produce a band locally than to import costume-related materials from China. “This is the reason those who are just in the business aspect of it and not for the love of it, take this route of importing costumes,” she said. Des Vignes, who produces her costumes locally, said she shared the same challenges as others in the business of producing a Carnival band. “We do not have the machinery nor the raw decorative materials, so we have to source it from China,” she added. She explained that the Chinese operate out of New York where customers have the option of ordering or purchasing their product from there and then have it shipped from China. She said China has cornered the market because they have the resources available. Des Vignes lamented that taxes on raw material must be reduced. The taxes, she added, need to be structured. “It costs about $1,500 to produce one costume and that does not include staff and other overhead costs,” she said. Des Vignes, who has been involved in producing mas for about eight years, said she does it for the love of T&T culture. She first started with a section in Poison, moved on to produce a section in Tribe and another in Element. She decided to take a year off and branched out on her own, along with her other partners, for 2011. We budgeted and used our savings. It’s a big risk to bring out a band, but we are doing it on love and debt,” she said. She indicated that costume sales were great for a new band.

Bring back creativity in mas

Echoing similar sentiments to those of Des Vignes was bandleader Peter Samuel, a disciple of veteran masman Peter Minshall, and an eight-time King of Carnival, who has decided to return to Carnival this year with his band: Skullduggery—The Dance of Deceit. He noted that mas designers need to bring back creativity in mas. So even though some of them produce mas locally, there are limited jobs available.

“It’s the same thing all over. It’s a poor imitation of Las Vegas showgirls,” Samuel stated. Totally against the idea of importing costumes wholesale from China, Samuel said seamstresses have been looking for work, but they are no longer needed. Samuel said the production of mas has turned into an assembly line, whereby workers are just required to cut and stick. He said he’s made the bold decision to stay away from bikini-and-beads type of costumes. Samuel said he recognises the limitations of producing a band locally.

He said his band has had to source materials from China for two of his 18-sectioned band because the items were not available locally. Items were also sourced  in the United States. Multiculturalism Minister Winston Peters on February 2, during a tour of mas camps in San Fernando, said that mas designers who import their costumes wholesale from China would experience prohibitive taxes in an effort to maintain and nurture the artform in T&T. While Samuel agrees with Peters on the subject of taxes on importing mas materials from China, he said that designers who produce mas locally should be assisted in order to bring down the cost of production. Samuel said it costs him up to $900 to produce a costume, but given other costs, such as music, food and security, final costume prices have been kept at between $1,900 and $2,895.

Government assistance

Even though the cost of producing a mas band is very high, there are six new bands for Carnival 2011.

Among them are Yuma, Bliss, Oasis and Skullduggery. Spice is returning for a second year. One of the new bandleaders, who wished to remain anonymous, said banks should be encouraged to facilitate new Carnival bands. The bandleader said it is very difficult to get a loan from the bank because they do not want to take the risk associated with Carnival. The bandleader said the Government should find alternative means to assist in the growth of the Carnival, that the high cost of producing a band has to be passed on to masqueraders. Earlier, Trade and Industry Minister Stephen Cadiz had said that one of the ministry’s plans is to establish a factory for the sole purpose of producing costumes locally. Cadiz said he would also reduce and, in some cases, remove certain duties on particular raw materials to bring down the cost of Carnival costume production.
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