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WASHINGTON — Explosive growth in imports, particularly from China, contributed to the acceleration of job losses in textile and apparel manufacturing, which lost a combined 7,600 jobs in March.

Apparel factories eliminated 4,500 positions in March to employ 262,000 people, a decline of 31,100 from a year ago. Textile mill employment fell 2,200 to 227,500, a 12-month drop of 13,200, while textile mill product employment dipped 900 to 176,400 and fell a cumulative 800 from a year ago. Total textile and apparel employment is now 665,900.

The employment report came as apparel and textile imports from China surged in January following the end of the quota regime and the domestic textile industry inched closer to filing China safeguard petitions based on actual market disruption, seeking to limit imports and save U.S. jobs.

The Commerce Department initiated a textile monitoring system Friday that provided industry import data for the first quarter and is expected to give the textile industry the evidence it needs to file market disruption cases (see related story, page 11).

“This data shows the relative job and production stability of last year seems to be over, with slow demand growth and a glut of cutthroat-priced imports, particularly from China,” Charles McMillion, president and chief economist at MBG Information Services, said. “I expect that without strong and urgent emergency safeguard relief that job losses for the industry will continue to accelerate in the coming months.”

Auggie Tantillo, executive director of the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition, said in a statement, “Today’s report is further evidence that the textile and apparel industry will experience severe job losses in 2005 unless the U.S. government decisively confronts China’s predatory trade practices.”

In the retail sector, apparel and accessories stores added 300 jobs last month to employ 1.38 million. The number of jobs at general merchandise stores fell by 3,900 to 2.85 million, while department stores lost 3,500 jobs to employ 1.61 million.

The overall economy added 110,000 jobs in March and the unemployment rate declined to 5.2 percent from 5.4 percent.

Carl Steidtmann, chief economist at Deloitte Research, said,  “You still have intense pressure on businesses to try to generate productivity gains and it makes it hard for them to justify hiring more people.”

This story first appeared in the April 4, 2005 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

McMillion said the numbers revealed the economy is slowing.

“We got news today about weak General Motors and Ford auto sales,” he said. “Housing continues to be strong, but it’s not growing the way it used to be, so the economy is really struggling now, with no engine to drive it forward.”