The country's manufacturing sector was small, contributing only 15 percent to the total GDP in 1992. Textile exports, primarily to the United States, led the Honduran manufacturing sector. The maquiladora, or assembly industry, was a growth industry in the generally bleak economy. Asian-owned firms dominated the sector, with twenty-one South Korean-owned companies in export processing zones located in the Río Sula valley in 1991. The maquiladoras employed approximately 16,000 workers in 1991; another nine firms opened in 1992. Job creation, in fact, is considered to be the primary contribution of the assembly operations to the domestic economy. The export textile manufacturing industry all but wiped out small, Honduran manufacturers, and food processors, whose goods were historically aimed at the domestic market, were also adversely affected. The small Honduran firms could not begin to compete with the assembly industry for labor because of the maquiladoras' relatively high wage scale of close to US$4 per day. Small firms also found it increasingly difficult to meet the high cost of mostly imported inputs. Membership in the Honduran Association of Small and Medium Industry (Asociación Hondureña de Empresas Pequeñas y Medianas) declined by 70 percent by 1991, compared to pre-maquiladora days, foreshadowing the likely demise of most of the small shops.
Honduran domestic manufacturers also suffered from increased Central American competition resulting from a trade liberalization pact signed in May 1991 by Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Overall, the Honduran manufacturing sector has mimicked other sectors of the economy--it is mostly noncompetitive, even in a regional context, because of insufficient credit and the high cost of inputs. Relatively high interest rates and a complicated investment law have also inhibited the foreign-dominated manufacturing sector from taking off.
The government-sponsored Puerto Cortés Free Zone was opened in 1976. By 1990 an additional five free zones were in operation in Omoa, Coloma, Tela, La Ceiba, and Amapala. A series of privately run export processing zones were also established in competition with the government-sponsored free zones. These privately run zones offered the same standard import-export incentives as the government zones. Most of the government and privately run zones were located along the Caribbean coast in a newly developing industrial belt.
Firms operating outside of the special "enterprise zones" (either privately run, export-processing zones or governmentsponsored free zones) enjoy many of the same benefits as those operating within the zones. The Honduran Temporary Import Law permits companies that export 100 percent of their production to countries outside the CACM countries to hold ten-year exemptions on corporate income taxes and duty-free import of industrial inputs.
Analysts continue to debate the actual benefits of the shift away from the import-substitution industrialization (ISI) policies of the 1960s and 1970s toward a new focus on free zones and assembly industries in the 1990s. Critics point to the apparent lack of commitment by foreign manufactures to any one country site or to the creation of permanent infrastructure and employment. They question whether new employment will be enough to offset the loss of jobs in the more traditional manufacturing sector. A value of US$195 million to the Honduran economy from assembly industries in 1991--when the value of clothing exports was greater than that of coffee--was a compelling argument in favor of the shift, however.
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