Mauritian Amb. Soborun and Zambian Amb. Siwela: Protect jobs supported by US-Africa textile trade

Time is running out for Congress to save jobs on both sides of the Atlantic by renewing the third-country fabric provision of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which is set to expire in just a few months.

AGOA provides duty-free entry for more than six thousand items from Sub-Saharan African countries to the United States, making it the most comprehensive trade and investment package between Africa and America. In the textiles and apparel sector, it provides essential certainty and predictability for American manufacturers and retailers who depend on African workers to produce high-quality goods for the U.S. market. A majority of these AGOA-supported textile and apparel jobs go to low-income women in Africa, including many who otherwise would not have the opportunity to work and earn a living. Their livelihoods, and the jobs of others in the United States, are already threatened by the September expiration of this vital provision.

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The third-country fabric rule, which allows AGOA beneficiaries to use yarns and fabrics from any country, has been a fundamental driver of the success of the apparel industry under AGOA. It accounts for 95 percent of AGOA apparel trade and has enabled African exporters to remain competitive in the American market. In Kenya, for example, exports of textiles and apparel under the third-country fabric provision account for about 70 percent of Kenya’s total exports into the United States.

In Mauritius, the apparel and textile industry is the largest employer in the private sector. It increased its export of apparel and textiles by 25 percent in the year 2010 once its eligibility for the third-country fabric provision was renewed in 2008.

In Lesotho, the textile and apparel industry was almost nonexistent prior to AGOA. Today, it is the No. 1 employer, providing 40,000 jobs. Of those jobs, 34,000 are held by women, and each woman is likely the sole breadwinner for a household of 4 to 8 members.

And in Swaziland, where 98 percent of the textile and apparel exports are covered by the third-country fabric provision, almost 30,000 women are employed in the apparel and textile industry. Furthermore, because families tend to be large in Swaziland with an average of 10 dependents each, the industry supports as many as 300,000 people overall — nearly one-quarter of the country’s entire population.

But today, all of that economic growth and development is at risk. American retailers typically place their textile and apparel orders with African manufacturers up to nine months in advance — with expiration of this provision looming on the horizon, many American retailers have already begun to cancel orders, disrupting the flow of their business and leaving African exporters empty-handed. Fortunately, swift congressional action is available to halt further trade disruptions and reaffirm the positive benefits of AGOA.

When Congress first enacted AGOA at the dawn of this millennium, it was an historic milestone in trade relations between the United States and Africa. Since then, AGOA has helped to reduce poverty and hunger by empowering mothers, sisters and daughters across the continent. This has in turn increased awareness and respect for fundamental human rights and freedoms, and strengthened democratic values in the vast majority of the Sub-Saharan African countries.

For the sake of women, families, workers and businesses on both sides of the Atlantic, we are appealing directly to Congress to renew the third-country fabric provision, through legislation such as S. 2007 and H.R. 2493. Passing these bills right away will guarantee American manufacturers can continue to obtain high-quality textile and apparel products from Africa at competitive prices. The U.S. Congress and the administration can rest assured of our unflinching support in this effort to sustain our strong, mutually beneficial U.S.-Africa trade ties.

Soborun is Mauritius’s ambassador to the United States, and Siwela is Zambia’s ambassador to the United States.