Three months after its introduction, a bill that would grant trade preferences
to Cambodia and 14 other countries has yet to pass the US Senate.
A bill that could single-handedly save the garment industry has met with resistance in the US.
TRADE Act has taken a backseat to the contentious US-Central America Free Trade
Agreement (CAFTA), said Chris Matthews, communications director for Senator
Gordon Smith, who introduced the bill in late January.
bill is not moving," Matthews said. "CAFTA is the main trade item on the agenda,
and right now we're just in a holding pattern with the
Negotiations for CAFTA began in January 2003, and lawmakers hope
to vote on the bill - which promotes trade liberalization between the United
States and five Central American countries - in May.
watchers believe the TRADE Act would help boost Cambodia's garment sector, which
faces stiff international competition after the elimination of quotas January 1.
The expired system guaranteed Cambodia a healthy market share for garments,
which make up 80 percent of the country's total exports.
currently pay around a 16 percent tariff on goods destined for the United
States, but the TRADE Act would offer Cambodia selective duty-free access to US
markets. Seventy percent of Cambodian garment exports go to
Industry optimists hope that Cambodia's reputation for high
labor standards will continue to attract image-conscious brands, but buyers have
repeatedly warned that Cambodia must lower the price of production and
"It's absolutely crucial that we get this bill passed," Van Sou
Ieng, president of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) told
the Post in February. "Without it, the industry cannot survive."
Cambodian delegates started pushing for the bill over a year ago, it garnered
little attention until the Asian 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
With the tsunami momentum behind it, the bill was
introduced into the US Senate January 26.
"But we're worried [about the
bill's visibility] since we're getting farther and farther away from the tsunami
now," said Ken Loo, secretary general of GMAC. "We're fighting hard to pass
it-or at least get debate started-before [the Senate's] recess in
Congressman Jim Kolbe introduced a version of the TRADE Act into
the US House of Representatives February 17.
"CAFTA has been delayed over
a year, so it makes sense it's high on the agenda now," Loo said. "But in order
to save time [on the TRADE Act] we decided to introduce the bill into both
It will take Congress less time to pass the bill
if both houses are already familiar with the legislation, Loo said. Often bills
are shuttled back and forth between the Senate and House while lawmakers try to
compromise on an acceptable version.
Matthews said it is not unusual for
lobbyists to look for support in both houses.
Though most political
observers attribute the bill's current limbo to CAFTA, spokesman for the Sam
Rainsy Party, Ung Bun-Ang, said Cambodia could be responsible for the
Bun-Ang said rampant corruption and the removal of parliamentary
immunity from three opposition MPs in February might make Congress wary of
passing legislation benefiting Cambodia.
US Senator Mitch McConnell
called for economic sanctions against Cambodia after the parliamentary immunity
But Greg Rushford, editor of a trade-focused Washington DC
newsletter, said trade agreements are generally more concerned with domestic
economic interests rather than the well-being of trading partners.
"Usually the hold-up on preferential trade deals isn't anything
high-minded like fighting corruption," Rushford wrote in an email to the Post.
"It's some US lobby that is afraid of competing."
The powerful US
textile and apparel industry has vocally opposed the TRADE Act, fearing
increased competition from overseas.
However, Bun-Ang said he hoped that
if the bill passes, policymakers will consider issues related to
"Preferential treatment [should] be linked to anti-corruption
efforts, rule of law and democratization in Cambodia," he said. "We want the
economic benefits to be distributed equitably to a wide population, not
concentrated in the hands of a select few at the top."