Don't Punish Africa

Don't Punish Africa

Thomas L. Friedman

New York Times ( 03/07/2000)


There is a travesty brewing in Congress that, if allowed to continue, will be a source of shame for all Americans. It will certainly be an ugly stain on the U.S. labor movement, particularly the apparel union and the A.F.L.-C.I.O. -- a stain that will highlight all the unions' phony-baloney assertions in Seattle that they just want to improve worker rights around the world and help the poor.


This controversy has to do with a stalled trade bill called The African Growth and Opportunity Act. And the bottom line is this: At a time when Africa is ravaged by AIDS, at a time when 290 million Africans more than the entire population of the U.S. -- are living on a dollar a day, the main U.S. textile union, UNITE!; the main textile manufacturers' lobby, ATMI; and the lawmakers who bow to both of them are blocking a bill that would allow Africans to export clothing to America duty free -- instead of with the current 17 percent import tax.


Why the opposition? Because Africa might increase its share of U.S. textile and apparel imports from its current level of 0.8 percent! Shame on the people blocking this bill. Shame on them.


Some 85 percent of the garments sold in the U.S. today are already sewn abroad. Honduras, little Honduras, already exports seven times more textiles and apparel to the U.S. than all 48 nations of sub-Saharan Africa combined. With our minimum wages, we can't produce jeans that retail for $16 and we don't want to. North Carolina's textile industry has already become highly automated and has moved away from low-value goods to high-value, high-tech fabrics. Much of the unionized labor force sewing clothes in the U.S. is in large cities and comprises new immigrants, many not citizens, since most Americans don't want these jobs.


If Africa were given duty-free access to our market, sophisticated textile plants in North Carolina wouldn't move to Madagascar. China would be the big loser, because Africans have the same skills to knit cashmere sweaters cheaply as people in China, and if Africa were given a 17 percent import tax advantage in shipping to the U.S., manufacturers would move their production from low-wage China to low-wage Africa. Which is why a study by the U.S. International Trade Commission concluded that "the impact of quota removal [for African imports] on U.S. producers and U.S. workers would be negligible."


So why do the unions still oppose it? Sheer knee-jerk protectionism even though the bill has tough measures to protect against any surge in imports from Africa, and restricts free-trade status to African countries moving toward democracy, economic reform and real worker protection.


No matter. Right now the only version of the bill the textile makers would permit is one that says Africa can only import duty-free into the U.S. if it first buys all the fabric, thread and yarn from U.S. factories, then ships it to Africa to be sewn, and then ships it back to the U.S. to be sold -- a costly obstacle course that would prevent any new investment in African factories. The real motto of U.S. trade unions is: We're for more worker standards in Africa, not more work.


This is really bad. This bill isn't a panacea for Africa, but it's important. Throughout the history of industrialization, poor countries have started down the road of development by sewing clothes. It's the one thing that poor people can do right away. It's critical that this bill go through now because by 2005 all the quotas on textile imports into the U.S. will expire. It will be a free-for-all. Right now investors are deciding where to locate plants for 2005 -- whether to stick with China or branch out to Africa, Vietnam or Mexico. If Africa is shut out from these investment decisions, it will fall even further behind.


The Clintonites talk the talk of Africa and AIDS, but, sadly, they have been afraid to get tough with the unions on this textile issue. Why is AIDS spreading so quickly among young women in Africa? One reason is that women have so few jobs they have to sell themselves to men with AIDS. Apparel jobs largely employ women. They make a difference.


But this is of no interest to the A.F.L.-C.I.O. crowd. All they care about is that Africa not sell more than 0.8 percent of garments here. Shame on them for what they are doing, and shame on us if we let them.