Labor Leader Calls For Rational Trade Policy

Your editorial (May 22), "Fever Pitch," calls for less furor and more balanced deliberation on the subject of trade. I agree. America needs a rational trade policy, one that takes into account both the realities of international trade and the needs and aspirations of all Americans.

Consider the following:

--The Textile and Apparel Trade Enforcement Act seeks to share the U.S. apparel and textile market among a larger number of developing nations. Today, five sources, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and the People's Republic of China account for more than half of the clothing and textile fabrics imported to this country. The Textile and Apparel Trade Enforcement Act would give 130 smaller garment and textile producing nations greater access to the U.S. market.

This act will permit imports to retain almost 40% of the American domestic market--twice the share President Reagan has provided for the steel industry.

--Uncontrolled imports cost American jobs. The textile, and especially apparel, industries are labor-intensive; wages make up the largest single production cost. The average American garment worker (both union and non-union) earns $5.85 an hour, plus another $1.50 to $2 for fringe benefits. This wage does not provide an opulent standard of living here, but it does compared to the condition of garment workers in most of the Third World. Wages for garment workers run from a high of $1.18 an hour in Hong Kong, to 57 cents an hour in Taiwan, 63 cents an hour in South Korea, to 16 cents an hour in China.

American producers and their counterparts overseas use the same machinery, the same production processes, and even the same designs and patterns. American workers, paid with a piece-rate incentive, are highly productive. The only "comparative advantage" of overseas producers in these areas is the extreme poverty of their workers. These workers, I should add, are legally and forcibly barred from any sort of collective economic or political action to improve their wages and working conditions.

--The Textile and Apparel Trade Enforcement Act is designed to bring the apparel and textile trade in line with the guidelines and spirit of the Multi-Fiber Arrangement (MFA). This agreement was designed to provide orderly growth in imports from developing nations. Import growth rates averaging 19% each year since 1980 are not orderly!

--Consumers see little, if any, benefit from apparel imports. Inspection of apparel prices at local department stores will bear this out, as will the Office of Textile and Apparel of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Retailers price imports at the same level as domestically produced goods, giving them enormous profit opportunities.

Here is also a hidden cost of imports. Apparel and textile workers come from our own Third World--women, the minimally educated, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and members of almost every other ethnic group. These workers have few skills other than their eye, hand and mind coordination. Without viable apparel and textile industries, or other labor-intensive industries also being wiped out by imports, where will these people find work?

The hidden cost of imports is found in higher taxes, to make up for lost tax revenue from the unemployed and to provide subsistence for the indigent. Increased family violence, alcoholism, mental illness and crime characterize long-term unemployment. The experience of several frost-belt states demonstrates that severe joblessness affects all members of a community, not just the unemployed.

We should not sacrifice the immediate livelihoods of almost 2 million of our people and the welfare of many millions more to the false notion of free trade. We must act as every other nation has; to conserve opportunity for our own people, where sharing our market in a reasonable manner. The Textile and Apparel Trade Enforcement Act is a step in that direction.


New York

Chaikin is president of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World