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As Chinese textile goods, including pants, underwear and shirts, hit stores across the country at unprecedented rates, U.S. officials and the textile industry worry about the effects on the American clothing market and U.S. workers.

Imports of Chinese cotton shirts and blouses have grown approximately 1,250 percent and cotton pants 1,500 percent over this time last year. The surge of clothing imports from China is the result of the December 2004 expiration of the Multi-Fiber Agreement, which gave developing countries access to international markets and bolstered job creation. The arrangement also protected industrialized countries such as the United States from competing against China, where low labor costs enable manufacturers to offer clothing at rock-bottom prices.

Now that these quotas are no longer in effect, U.S. clothing manufacturers are scrambling. The National Council of Textile Organizations says the first three months of soaring imports resulted in the closing of 17 textile mills and 17,000 lost jobs for American garment workers. "This surge of imports from China is just the tip of the iceberg. If history is any indication, Chinese imports will continue to soar until they gain a virtual monopoly of the U.S. market," Auggie Tantillo, executive director of the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition, told the Delta Farm Press.

U.S. politicians are feeling pressure to act. When China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, it agreed to allow member countries to impose quotas if its exports harmed markets.

As retailers and industry officials in the United States contemplate moves to limit China's textile exports, debate over how to strike a balance between job protection and free, open markets will continue with China opposing any limitations.

"Any attempt or moves to extend the quota system would go against the principle of free and fair trade and shakes the foundations of the multilateral trading system," spokesman Chong Wen said on China's commerce ministry Web site.

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