The American apparel industry has literally lost its shirt over the past several decades, as the industry, once concentrated in the United States, has had to outsource its products and its jobs to other countries to try and keep costs down under pressure from retailers like Wal-Mart, Kmart and Target. According to a July, 1998 report from the US General Accounting Office (Carribean Basin Worker Rights), over the past 23 years, US apparel industry jobs have shrunk by -41%, a loss of 597,000 American jobs. There were 1.45 million US apparel workers in 1973, and only 853,000 similar jobs in 1996. According to the GAO, more than half of the $178 billion in apparel sold at the retail level in the US at companies like Wal-Mart in 1995 were imported. All this has been done with the blessing of Uncle Sam. Countries in the Carribbean Basin, like Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatamala, Honduras and Jamaica, have benefitted from special import and tax breaks contained in the 1983 Carribbean Basin Economic Recovery Act. Three years later, the US government began the SAP program (appropriately named), or the Special Access Program, which provided trade preferences for clothes assembled in Caribbean countries using materials that were formed or cut in the U.S. These “formed and cut” fabrics are shipped to the Caribbean, assembled there, and are imported duty-free under U.S. laws. Between 1987 and 1997, imports from the Caribbean grrew from $864 million to $6.4 billion — a sevenfold increase. American apparel workers have been made SAPs by the collusion of US government and sprawl-mart retailers. These “maquiladoras” factories (production sharing) import products that are exempted from paying US customs duties on the value of the US made components in the clothing. Mexico has its own SAP program, called the Special Regime Program, begun in 1988. So a company like Wal-Mart now has well over 800,000 sales clerks, stockers and baggers — while the apparel manufacturing base in America has lost its pants. When Wal-Mart talks about the jobs it will create, keep in mind what has happened in the apparel trade. The GAO report, by the way, concludes that allegations of workers rights abuses in the Caribbean countries persist, and enforcement of labor laws generally remain a problem.
For your free copy of “Caribbean Basin: Worker Rights Progress Made, But Enforcement Issues Remain, visit the GAOs website at www.gao.gov. This report is GAO/NSIAD-98-205.