Despite being hailed as the Philippines' shoe capital, Marikina City, a suburb east of Manila, remains in want of a professional shoemaking industry.

"I am saddened because, for so long, nobody thought of professionalizing our industry. Our shoemakers have low morale because people look down on them. I pity them," Noel Box, head of the Marikina City government's Shoe Industry Development Office, told Kyodo News in a recent interview.

(Noel Box)

Box's aspiration, which is also his office's mandate, is shared by some young entrepreneurs in the city who have ventured into the different aspects of the 132-year-old industry that, for a time, contributed up to around 70 percent of the local economy.

Buddy Tan, 37, owner of the relatively young Black Wing Shoes company that sells direct-to-client custom-made shoes, laments that "the main stakeholders who can actually do something about the state of the industry are not doing anything," placing the industry in danger.

Marikina earned the title "Shoe Capital of the Philippines" in 1956 after establishing a notable shoemaking industry and becoming the biggest manufacturer of shoes nationwide at the time.

The industry's birth is traced back to 1887, when a local community leader and a few companions reconstructed a pair of imported shoes, marking the spread of shoemaking skills by hand in what was then a mainly agricultural town.

Shoe manufacturing by way of machinery was introduced during the American occupation at the turn of the last century as American soldiers placed orders for military shoes, a local historical account said.

Not long after, shoe factories began to sprout up, with thousands of people directly engaged in the industry. Marikina-made shoes found their way into shops in the capital Manila.

World War II disrupted the industry due to the scarcity of capital and raw materials. But it quickly picked up afterward, with the intervention of local and national leaders, and amid the entry of imported shoes.

A tremendous boost in the industry followed the verbal declaration of the city as the country's shoe capital by then President Ramon Magsaysay, Box said. "In the 1960s and 1970s, our shoes were already being exported to Japan, Southeast Asian nations, even to Europe, USA and Canada."

"Our shoes then, during the peak years, were comparable to Italian-made quality," said Box.

The 1960s through the early 1990s were the heyday of the Marikina shoe industry, with reportedly some 3,000 shoe manufacturers engaged in business during the period, he said.

"In the early '60s to early '90s, 70 percent of the (local) economy was from the shoe industry," Box added.

(Buddy Tan (L), 37, owner of Black Wing Shoes in Marikina City, the Philippines’ shoe capital located east of Manila, talks to Kyodo News on April 2, 2019 inside his company’s workshop. Seated beside him is one of his shoemakers, Romy Dacillo, 52.)

In a separate interview, Tan said that during that period shoemakers, even those who were just contractual workers, never went hungry because they had work all year around.

But when cheaper foreign-made shoes, mostly from China, started flooding the Philippines beginning in the late 1990s as a result of trade liberalization, the local industry began to suffer.

Official government data showed that from 513 registered shoe manufacturers in 1994, the number gradually decreased over the years. In 2001, only 237 were registered, with the number falling to 153 in 2018.

Last year, the registered shoe manufacturers generated gross sales worth 2.16 billion Philippine pesos ($41.5 million).

"After the decline, some (shoe factory) owners shifted to the food business, while many shoemakers became nannies, construction workers or factory workers," Box said.

Nowadays, only about 15 percent of Marikina's economy relies on the shoe industry.

But throughout the ups and downs, the core of the industry -- the shoemakers themselves -- have been neglected, "maybe both by government and business owners," argued Box.

Compensation was mostly based on the quantities made, and not on the government-mandated minimum wage for workers.

Relatedly, most of the shoemakers have been left financially illiterate. And, coupled with the lack of resources for capital, they are incapable of starting their own shops.

There was also not much room for skills improvement, especially for those engaged in mass production, while the handicraft of shoemaking, which is supposed to be Marikina's greatest strength, was not massively honed and passed on.

The challenge to overcome these misfortunes is compounded by the prevailing realities in the shoe business, specifically the unrestricted inflow of imported products and unethical labor practices.

(Unyx Sta. Ana, 32, co-founder and managing director of Zapateria hub in Marikina City, the Philippines’ shoe capital located east of Manila, talks to Kyodo News on April 2, 2019.)

In its effort to professionalize the shoe industry, the city government created Box's office in 2012, which has since advocated for the payment of proper wages to workers and compliance with other provisions of the Labor Code. It also helps match local producers and shoe sellers and has introduced footwear technology courses in schools.

"From the start, I already decided to pay my workers under the wage system, and not per piece made. It has to be that because we want to professionalize the industry," said Tan, the entrepreneur whose firm opened in 2013. "We should be responsible (for) guiding the industry now, not just be profiting from it."

Unyx Sta. Ana, 32, a descendant of shoemakers from the late 19th century, said her family opened the Zapateria hub last year "to foster creativity and innovation in the local shoe industry."

Professionalism, Sta. Ana said, will encourage more people to work in the industry.

"I feel that more of us should take a closer look into the side of the artisanal designer footwear...I feel that's another way of looking forward," Sta. Ana said in another interview.

While it may be hard to return to the industry's peak a few decades ago, Box said, "At the minimum, we just want to keep this sustainable."