By  on December 14, 2010

WASHINGTON — When asked to briefly describe what she does, Janet Labuda jokingly said, “What do I do? I raise hell.”

At times, her cheeky answer isn’t far from the truth. The director of the Textile/Apparel Policy and Programs division within the Office of International Trade at U.S. Customs & Border Protection is retiring at the end of the year after 30 years with the Customs department, where she is responsible for overseeing the implementation and enforcement of textile trade laws. Her purview includes fighting customs fraud, transshipment and the undervaluation of goods, as well as providing technical expertise on the complicated provisions of U.S. textile and apparel trade laws.

The division Labuda heads is a policy office, but it is more hands-on than many of these are, she said. The textile/apparel division works a fair amount in the field and engages frequently with industry stakeholders to resolve issues within the trade community. It’s a complicated job that involves addressing the concerns of two — at times diametrically opposed — sides of the same industry: apparel and textile importers and domestic producers.

And that’s where her cheeky answer comes in.

“Keeping everybody unhappy is the goal,” Labuda said with satiric tone. “But you don’t want anybody more unhappy than anyone else.”

Despite her attitude, sources from both sides of the industry said Labuda’s leadership and communication skills will be missed.

“She has been a fearless champion for textile enforcement and against illegal textile fraud,” said Cass Johnson, president of the National Council of Textile Organizations.

Labuda is “a tiger,” he said, and her leadership and determination have been instrumental for the textile industry, particularly now, as budgetary constraints hit home.

Labuda’s greatest strength was her commitment to communicating with the importing community, said Julia Hughes, president of the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles & Apparel.

“Even if we didn’t necessarily agree with what she was saying, Janet did a fabulous job of meeting with industry in the U.S. and around the world, communicating the vision at Customs and what were the expectations for importers,” Hughes said.

It’s those relationships formed with the trade community, other agencies and her foreign counterparts doing that outreach that Labuda said she will miss the most.

A Brooklyn native, Labuda started with the agency in 1980 as a customs inspector at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, after a five-year stint as a high school history teacher. Following almost four years with Customs in New York, Labuda said she took what was supposed to be a temporary position in Washington for a change of pace, and wound up staying 26 years.

Labuda’s early positions with the agency involved work on the “narcotics side of the house” and a stint overseas as a representative for Customs with the European Union. She was given the textile portfolio in the mid-Nineties when it was under some scrutiny.

When Labuda took over the textile portfolio its major focus was on the apparel quotas that were in place. Much of the work in the textile and apparel arena then dealt with clamping down on the various schemes and efforts to avoid quotas and other trade rules — what Labuda was well known to refer to as “shenanigans,” industry sources said.

“The agency was under a tremendous amount of pressure with regard to enforcing our textile laws,” Labuda said.

In the decades since she inherited the portfolio, she said the entire landscape of apparel and textiles within the Customs arena has shifted.

By the time the last of the apparel quotas, the China safeguards, were lifted at the end of 2008 the landscape was entirely different than when she started with the agency, in part because of an “explosion of preference programs,” Labuda said. From the Nineties to the present, the U.S. established the African Growth & Opportunity Act, two programs extending benefits to Haiti, the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Central American Free Trade Agreement and many other trade pacts and preference programs.

“The landscape translated into a very different texture,” Labuda said. “Now our focus is broader.”

Her work at Customs today is focused on dealing with complicated technical provisions in the preference programs and trade agreements, in addition to continuing to fight customs fraud, transshipment and the undervaluation of goods. The textile and apparel portfolio is in many ways more complicated now than ever, Labuda said.

“It’s become a very complex portfolio,” she said.

As Labuda closes the chapter on her decades with Customs, she leaves behind a veritable Pandora’s box of issues for the industry. Perhaps Labuda said it best in a poem she wrote and read during her last appearance before the USA-ITA’s annual gathering in November, which earned her a standing ovation from attendees:

Underwear, trade that’s fair, how do we cope?
China, India, Pakistan, too.
Transshipment, enforcement, what will we do?
I’m going to retire, what about you?”

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