The U.S. importing community has vehemently criticized the new U.S. bilateral textile pact with Cambodia, saying it restricts a new sourcing option while unfairly penalizing a poor country.
U.S. importers, retailers and even some apparel makers who source abroad also are angry that the United States has moved to place quotas on a country outside the World Trade Organization, at a time when quotas on countries governed by a WTO textile pact will dissolve in another six years. ''The U.S. government says they (Cambodia) had explosive growth of 400 percent, but based on a base level of what? A base of one?'' said Erik O. Autor, vice president and international trade counsel for the National Retail Federation in Washington.Cambodia shipped $300 million worth of apparel to U.S. stores last year.
''Just as a matter of policy, I question handicapping one of the poorest countries in one of the areas where they've been able to make some progress. Our foreign policy is to politically and economically help these people. That they are a real threat (to U.S. industry) is laughable,'' Mr. Autor said.
CAMBODIANS 'MORTGAGED THEIR FUTURE'
''Cambodia is not a member of the WTO and has no recourse,'' said Robin Lanier, senior vice president of industry affairs and trade development at the International Mass Retail Association in Arlington, Va.
''And the Cambodians are desperate . . . They'll do almost anything to get some certainty that they can get into our market. These (limits) sound so good, but the country will discover that they've mortgaged their future when it comes time to renegotiate their agreement,'' she said.
The three-year pact, effective on Jan. 1, was settled during negotiations held in Phnom Penh last week. Donald Johnson, chief textile negotiator at the U.S. Trade Representative's Office, and Troy Cribb, chairwoman of the Committee for the Implementation of Textile Agreements, were still traveling in Asia and could not be reached for comment.
But in the past, U.S. trade officials have said that some Cambodian apparel imports have surged astronomically, such as 23,000 percent for cotton sweaters and 850 percent for shirts and blouses, and need to be restrained to protect the domestic industry.
LIMITS ON COTTON PRODUCTS
Last autumn, CITA announced it planned to limit Cambodia's cotton sweaters, known in the trade as category 345, and cotton knit shirts and blouses, known as category 338/339. Limits on cotton and man-made fiber gloves, category 331/661, began in 1997.
The bilateral textile pact places limits on nine additional categories of goods: men's and boys' coats, 334/634; women's and girls' coats, 335/635; woven shirts, 340/640; cotton and man-made fiber trousers, 347/348/647/648; cotton and man-made fiber underwear, 352/652; wool knit shirts, 438; wool sweaters, 445/446; man-made fiber knit shirts, 638/639; and man-made fiber sweaters, 645/646.
U.S. importers and retailers say the numbers allowed under the bilateral pact may look generous but they are not.
For example, Cambodian supplies of cotton knit shirts and blouses are limited to 2.5 million dozen for 1999, but that's only 100,000 dozen more than the amount U.S. buyers bought in 1998, Mr. Autor said. And U.S. trade officials limited the country's 1999 supplies of cotton sweaters to 94,000 dozen, about 4,500 less dozen than the amount exported last year.
Importers also find a labor provision - the first in a bilateral textile pact - onerous. The clause apparently will increase Cambodia's quotas if the government follows a labor program that improves working conditions.
''I think CITA is looking for something to do by linking textile and labor issues,'' said one industry source.
U.S. industry analysts say that the restrictions on Cambodian trade aren't going to provide more orders for U.S. apparel firms.
''This was not U.S. production moving to Asia, it was shifts in trade within Asia,'' said Julia Hughes, vice president of international trade at the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel. ''Many companies were just getting ready to invest in Cambodia and this creates new disruptions. The three-year pact calls for 6 percent growth for 10 categories in the second and third years. Two categories, wool knit shirts and wool sweaters, will be limited to 1 percent increases, said Mr. Autor.
The U.S. government's move to restrict Cambodian supplies even upset the American Apparel Manufacturers Association, an Arlington, Va.-based group whose members increasingly head offshore for less expensive supplies of garments. Both the association, Ms. Hughes' group and Mr. Autor's group lodged written protests with U.S. trade officials.
Lawrence Martin, president of the apparel association, said last week that the group has no uniform response when the U.S. government issues an import restraint.
''We take each one on a case-by-case basis,'' Mr. Martin said. ''A number of our companies planned to manufacture (in Cambodia) . . . Sentiment was strong to take this position. We're opposed to (restraints).''
The U.S. government granted Cambodia most-favored-nation status, which gives a nation lower duties on its goods, about two years ago.
The country's horrendous political problems have deterred U.S. companies from investing, and as Cambodia achieved some tenuous political stability last year, it was hit by the same economic crisis that swept through Asia.
''U.S. companies have long been optimistic about the prospects for the country, pending further political stabilization,'' said Joseph Hayes, executive director of the U.S.-Asean Business Council in Washington. ''Now there's less interest in Southeast Asia in general.''
Asean is a acronym for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Cambodia is not yet a full participating member of the group.
Mr. Hayes said the garment industry is one of the Cambodian economy's bright spots.
''It provides benefits to the workers . . . to the lowest level of society,'' he added.
Officials at the Cambodian Embassy in Washington could not be reached for comment.