CHEAP Chinese knock-offs are threatening the survival of Ninian & Lester, makers of the global Jockey underwear brand for the African market for more than 60 years.
The Durban-based company is the only underwear manufacturer in South Africa to have its products counterfeited, and the problem is increasing exponentially and was a threat to employment and credibility of the brand, CEO Adriaan Verhagen said in an interview last week.
Ninian & Lester was awarded the Jockey South Africa licence in 1951 and employs about 1,500 people.
"The scourge is escalating at such a rate that between January and September alone we seized more than 300,000 men’s and ladies counterfeit garments," he said.
This is the same number that was seized last year. Jockey products are the only locally produced underwear that is being copied. The South African market is the worst afflicted with cheap copied imports, of all markets where Jockey is sold.
"Our conservative estimate is that the known cases (the number of legal cases relating to Jockey counterfeit garments) represent only 5% of the problem.
"Extrapolated this represents approximately 1,000 machinist jobs for 12 months," Mr Verhagen said, commenting on the potential effect on employment at the company.
Simon Eppel, researcher for the South African Labour Research Institute, part of the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers Union (Sactwu), said on Monday customs fraud and illegally imported goods were an "enormous problem" for the clothing sector. "While the state — South African Revenue Service (SARS) in particular — is taking the problem more seriously and has increased its surveillance of illegal clothing imports, much more can and should be done," he said.
"Sactwu wants to see SARS prosecute people who import and sell these goods, and for these people to be publicly identified and shamed for their behaviour," Mr Eppel said.
Mr Verhagen said: "In spite of the rigorous compliance requirements of FICA (the Financial Intelligence Centre Act) and seizure of consignments at ports of entry, we have not yet seen a major player being apprehended and prosecuted, which is extremely disappointing."
He said small independent retailers were also affected, as they could not compete with informal hawkers who stood outside their stores offering a "Jockey" garment, with lower quality fabric, design and structure, for a fraction of the cost.
Mr Verhagen said customs laws should be changed, as customs authorities did not have the power to open containers designated as in-transit to other African markets, even though these often never reached other markets, but were instead opened in South Africa so that illegally imported goods could be sold here.
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