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Tunisia draws EU apparel retailers with faster turnaround times
Mar '09
A country of 10 million inhabitants, better known in the UK as a value tourist location, Tunisia is home to a vibrant clothing industry employing 200,000 skilled workers. Once synonymous for its CMT method of operation (where the Tunisian manufacturer sources some of the materials and trimmings), Tunisia's 1300 “for-export-only” clothing factories are evolving into part CMT and further up the value-added chain, with the conception, design and manufacture in Tunisia of the full garment, which can then be sold under the firm's own label or as the customer's brand name.

Clothes from Tunisia are available in French shops such as Galeries Lafayette and Prisunic, by mail order through La Redoute, and from brands such as Dim and Hom – so much so that one in three bras, one in two pieces of swimwear, and one in two work wear items imported into France come from Tunisia. Now Tunisia is the fifth largest supplier to the EU, with a 3.5 per cent share of the EU import market, but well under 1 per cent of the British market.

Visits to Tunisian firms in preparation for Tunisian Textile Days revealed that a number of UK customers, including Next, Marks & Spencer, Arcadia, John Lewis, TK Maxx, Oxbow, Myla and the niche swimwear supplier Hoola, are already aware of the benefits on offer. Why not more? Does Tunisia deserve a bigger audience in the UK? Yes, Tunisia offers the opportunity to de-risk business with faster turnaround times, quality products from skilled workers and fast shipment times. Evidence is provided by the following examples.

1. Proximity.
Tunisia, on the Mediterranean coast, has boats sailing from Tunis three times a week. In containers or grouped consignments, goods dispatched on a Saturday arrive the following day in Marseille and then by road in Paris on a Tuesday or in London on a Wednesday or Thursday. Swimwear manufacturer Bacosport has found daily flights to London no more expensive than sea/road transport.

2. Low cost but skilled labour.
Tunisia's minimum wage of €139 per month for a 48 hour week compares favorably with Turkey's at about €250 and the UK's of over €800 based on a 40 hour week. The long established trained workforce is being re-skilled for the evolution in garment manufacturing. CETTEX the Tunisian State Textile Institute oversees this. The 15 per cent official unemployment leads to no reported labour shortage in the industry though some clothing firms have experienced minor shortages at the highest skills levels.

3. Large installed factory base.
Big firms such as VTL (5000 employees), and Soprodite (900) occupy large modern factories in the Tunis area. The export-only firms benefit from duty-free entry of materials and accelerated Customs clearance in the factory, so avoiding the time and extra cost of doing this at the port.

4. Response to European demand.
Examples seen of how Tunisian firms can accommodate changing tastes in the UK included: • Soprodite began in 1999 by assembling for Next on a CMT basis, but since 2001 has undertaken the full production process. • TFCE design, create and deliver typically within five weeks of an approach, though this will reduce if more of the total process is entrusted to the Tunisian firm. • Several firms offering supplementary production in Tunisia to deal with run-ons (“reasserts”) required for products sourced initially in the Far East. • For Marks & Spencer, Soprodite were making ladies' blouses, fully pre-retailed. • Small run-on orders can be completed within a week provided, as in the case of

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