As leaders gather in Phnom Penh for the trade-focused World Bank conference,
garment lobbyists are celebrating a US legislative breakthrough triggered by
The natural disaster has helped build momentum in
Washington for a dormant bill that would grant Cambodia and 14 other developing
countries - some affected by the tsunami - selective duty-free access to
The bill, recently introduced in the US Senate, covers
textile imports to America. The American market makes up 70 percent of Cambodian
garment exports, said Van Sou Ieng, president of the Garment Manufacturers
Association in Cambodia. Manufacturers now pay around a 16 percent tariff on
goods destined for the United States.
"It's absolutely crucial that we
get this bill passed," said Ieng during a break at the World Bank conference's
recent press briefing. "Without it, the industry cannot survive."
governmental and business elites at the conference (February 10-11) are pressing
for the diversification of Cambodia's export economy, the country's reliance on
garments can't be ignored. Most of the conference's scheduled panels focus on
how to keep Cambodia's star industry competitive after the expiration of quotas
Many of the event's participants said they hope Cambodia's
reputation for high labor standards will continue to attract image-conscious
But Ieng said this isn't enough.
"Labor standards are only
one component of competitiveness," he said. "Access to market is the most
important factor - if we don't get this [bill passed], it could jeopardize all
our labor efforts."
Although Cambodian delegates started pushing for the
bill over a year ago, it gathered little attention until the tsunami ravaged the
Maldives, one of the 14 least developed countries (LDCs) included in the
original legislation. Lawmakers then added Sri Lanka, a non-LDC, to the bill,
because it was greatly affected by the disaster.
Senator Gordon Smith
(R-OR) introduced the revised Tariff Relief Assistance for Developing Economies
(TRADE) Act to the US Senate on January 26. The United States already has
similar trade preferences for least developed countries in Africa and the
Caribbean, but not for Asia.
"We've been trying to get this bill
introduced for many months, but in Washington, everything is timing," said
Roland Eng, former Cambodian Ambassador to the United States. "The tsunami
showed how the Asia Pacific region is fragile."
Concern in Cambodia over
the bill's passage intensified in October, leading up to the expiration of the
quota system governing international textile commerce January 1. A bilateral
trade agreement with the United States also ended at the start of the New Year.
Both arrangements guaranteed Cambodia a healthy market share for garments, which
make up 80 percent of the country's total exports.
Now Cambodia must
compete in an open market with industrial giants like China, which can make
goods faster and at lower cost.
Despite constant discussion of quotas in
Cambodia and other small countries reliant on garment industries, the issue has
had a low profile in the United States.
"Quotas were on the agendas of
public policy elites, NGOs, people with an interest in trade," said Karen
Tramontano, president of Global Fairness Initiative. "They weren't on the
[American] public agenda because they don't have an immediate effect on people."
"But," she added, "the tsunami is very much on the public
The sheer multitude of issues circulating in Washington makes it
difficult for one to rise above the din of political noise. When legislation
gains momentum and recognition, it generally has a "strong political engine
driving it," she said.
The tsunami gave the TRADE Act a
While Senator Smith wrote in a statement to the Post that he has
long supported facilitating international trade, he added that "the tsunami made
expanding this bill to Sri Lanka important, and it made swift passage especially
But with increased recognition comes magnified opposition.
The powerful US textile and apparel industry vocally opposes the TRADE
Act, fearing competition from overseas. Over the past four years, the industry
has experienced a job loss rate of 35 percent, said Karl Spilhaus, president of
the National Textile Association.
"Senator Smith's bill is not the
appropriate response to the tsunami disaster," Spilhaus said. "While we
sympathize with the victims of this tragic event ... you don't go to the
intensive care unit for a blood drive. The US textile industry needs to be in
the intensive care unit."
Still, the bill's supporters claim that, with
the tsunami label attached, the TRADE Act now has a much better chance of
passing both houses.
"Everyone's always looking for a hook, what's going
to give a bill some energy," Tramontano said. "For this bill, the hook was the
tsunami - even though the substantive underlying issues have nothing to do with