Safi said they need more protection, as the current 20% level was not enough to prevent a surge of Chinese-made furniture imports. PICTURE: Werlley Meira
DURBAN -  The South African Furniture Initiative (Safi), a body formed in 2016 to represent furniture manufacturers, said that they need more protection, as the current 20 percent level was not enough to prevent a surge of Chinese-made furniture imports. 

Overall furniture imports have almost doubled to R11.9 billion last year from R6.7bn in 2011.

“Furniture manufacturers cannot compete against Chinese imports, which is why local manufacturers continue to lose market share,” Safi said. 

“The low end consumer market has migrated to the informal market, which is largely serviced by cash informal traders. There has been significant growth of illegal imports, which has resulted in a lack of employment growth and opportunities,” the industry body noted.

The Chinese share of furniture imports has ballooned to 60.3percent in 2017 from 40percent in 2007. This market share increase was largely at the expense of European countries such as Belgium, Germany, Italy and Spain. These four European countries have seen their share shrink to just less than 11percent in 2017 from 23.6percent in 2007.

KwaZulu- Natal has the second highest share of the 2200 registered furniture manufacturers. Gauteng has a 37percent share, KZN a 23percent share and the Western Cape has a 21percent share.  The remaining 19percent are located in the other six provinces.  

The furniture manufacturing sector has seen its employment number shrink over the years. From a labour force of 44,536 in 1995, the work force shrank to 23300 in 2010 before a modest recovery to 26,411 in 2018.  These jobs are now in danger unless protection is increased and there is a clampdown on illegal imports, which do not meet the required standards.

Kenya, for instance, has enforced a requirement that all imports need to be independently certified by companies like Swiss company SGS before leaving the country of origin.
Safi said furniture retail/hotel/government departments had been responsive to the buy local message.

“We have received pledges of increased localisation from Absa and Standard Banks as well as from retailers Coricraft and Lewis Group. We have been targeting private school groups, the banking and insurance sector, hospitality groups (hotels) as well as retailers, so we are slowly following up on our initial correspondence, but it is encouraging to have had the commitments from two of our major banking institutions,” Safi said.

The Kitchen Specialists Association (KSA) was not against imports and has members that import kitchens. 

“High quality, trend setting, imported kitchen and products are an asset to the market as they inspire the local industry to reach to international standards and quality. We are, however, concerned about the control of the quality of imported goods or grey products into South Africa that compromise the standards, quality and accountability within the industry. 

“Products coming into South Africa no longer need to be assessed by the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) to ensure they are meeting both local and international standards. There is also no process to ensure that companies importing products as agents have long term plans in place to guarantee those products and ensure consumers are protected should they lose the agency,” KSA said.

It said that the lack of skilled and qualified employees in design, manufacturing and installation positions was a key problem for the South African kitchen industry. 

“In the UK and other countries there are formal qualifications, internships and apprenticeships to facilitate the correct skill sets for the kitchen industry. Sadly, in South Africa people are moving straight into the workforce and being trained on the job without getting a formal qualification,” it said.

It noted that in South Africa there is a lack of a formal qualification for the kitchen designer.

“Elsewhere in the world the kitchen designer is just that, but in South Africa the roles of designer and sales person have become one, meaning that an odd combination of skills is required to be a successful kitchen designer. The interior design schools currently offer no qualification as a kitchen designer and kitchens only form a small part of the three-year syllabus with most of the focus being on commercial rather than domestic kitchens. This means that kitchen designers are either being taken raw into the job market and being taught on-the- job, meaning that their skill set is unique to that particular kitchen company and not universal; or they are coming from the interior design or architectural drafting arena,” KSA added.

In addition, kitchen installers came with a long history of artisanship where they were trained from the ground up, but now it is mostly on-the job training.
“In the Cape, particularly, there was a strong history of craftsmanship where installers had prized woodworking skills that were vital to solving problems on site and ensuring that out-of-square walls and floors were not a hindrance to a quality installation. 

“These installation specialists took great pride in their work and were often part of apprenticeship or internship programs. Sadly, these traditions no longer exist. New entrants into the job market are being trained on the job and not getting the knowledge they need to enable them to have the skillset of their predecessors. “We believe that kitchen installation is a scarce skill in South Africa. We desperately need to reinstate a push to artisan qualifications, internships and apprenticeship once again instilling pride in this job and the skillset it requires. In other countries diplomas of  two to four years are required to install kitchens and companies exist, whose sole purpose it is to qualify and train installers and then outsource them to the industry,” KSA said.

While many machine operators that operate in the furniture manufacturing sector learn skills on the job, they are not getting formal recognition of their abilities and this issue needed to be addressed, according to the KSA.

“There is an opportunity to formally recognise those working in the industry for the abilities in working with specialised machinery. Facilitating recognised and traceable qualification would allow for a better employment chain. Presently the labour force in the manufacturing sector is unstable, ever-changing and not specialised. We need to look at ways of creating a stable base of qualified employees so that manufacturing companies can invest back into the upskilling and development of their staff knowing their investment will be returned,” it said.