The Last Mas Maker

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From that day two dancing puppets named Tan Tan and Saga Boy made their debut on the Savannah stage in Port of Spain, not a Carnival has passed without a band that had skirts, pants, frills or capes constructed by Lachmin Rampersad.  She is the go-to-gal from Guyana who saves the day for mas bands that offer masqueraders more than a slice of lycra as a costume.

The conveniences offered in most modern offices are staples in Rampersad’s factory. Employees have use of a cooler, microwave and fridge. But the most adored provision is the compassion Mrs. Rampersad, 59, showers on her staff. “I tell the workers if you feel hungry take a five minutes, go eat because if you get sick it worse [sic]. Sometimes you don’t know if someone didn’t eat at home.” “Our people are paid properly, after 4 p.m. they get time-and-a-half and a meal.” The transparency around working conditions that Mrs. Rampersad affords  customers hasn’t deterred clients from taking their business to China. Nonetheless, she’s committed to nurturing her community though there are fewer options for young people.

Everybody in my factory is over 18. You don’t get young people to come to work even as apprentice, because of CEPEP and On the Job Training (OJT). Nobody wants to learn the garment industry,” laments Mrs. Rampersad. “There’s no provision for that. It have [sic] SERVOL but they have to pay to go there. People in the poorer bracket, they can’t afford that. You have people who have the passion for it, most of them if they have the passion for it, then I train them. As long as they are willing to do it, we will get there.

The fourth of five sisters and two brothers, Mrs. Rampersad migrated to Trinidad in 1978 at 25, after just two visits. An introduction that turned romantic inspired her relocation. She was part of a church group. She recalls: “We came across, stayed for two weeks; his father was in the Trinidad group.” She’s referring to Chankalal Rampersad, the dashing truck driver she met on that trip and stayed in contact with via handwritten letters.

“After I had my first child I decide to stay home,” she explains. Her husband “wasn’t getting enough work,” so she bought a sewing machine, and an entrepreneur was born. She went door to door seeking newborns to clothe with baby vests (kazacks) made of jersey. “One neighbor would order a dozen. Sometimes I could sew 100 in 8 hours,” recalls Mrs. Rampersad. While other women collected handbags and shoes, she fancied sewing machines, and acquired six in five years.

She hired and trained her first employee six months into her new home-business–just stitching baby vests. “When she go home [sic] I used the machine in the evening.” The drawing room was at capacity with ten machines by the time they broke ground on a neighboring lot. Banks wouldn’t give her a loan back then, so she used savings of just under $20,000 to build a simple 20′ x 40′ concrete brick production space. Word-of-mouth served to build the Rampersads’ small business, and continues to be the only form of advertising her business relies on.

Her biggest honor was constructing the spirals and musical notes for costumes by Peter Minshall that appeared in the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1996 Olympic Games. Soon, her clients included mas band Legends, Brian MacFarlane, Alyson Brown. And she’s done “some work for Peter Elias.” “I work for Rosalind Gabriel, I do little stuff for Tribe, I work last year for K2K but this year they went China.”

“If everything goes to China, 10 years from now what will happen to TT? It’s revenue going out nothing coming in.” “I know quite a few huge factories that went out of business, they had over 100 employees. Everybody bringing in 40-foot trailer from China.” School uniforms are the bread and butter for the remaining garment construction factories, but that work is also going to China. “After school uniforms, what next?” she wonders.

Mrs. Rampersad’s reputation helps her stay inspired and provides business for uniform and mas construction, and she accepts requests to adjust costumes made in China. She continues to  produce baby vests which retail for $7.00 each. “Right now I export to Barbados, Grenada, Guyana and Tobago,” she explained. “My label goes on it. Most of them is wholesale [sic].”

While she strives to create jobs, she prays for government intervention in the form of incentives for mas bands to manufacture more mas locally. The local workforce, she says, “is losing out to the culture. The only thing driving [mas bands] to China is the cost.”

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