WASHINGTON — House lawmakers prodded two top trade and State Department officials Thursday on increases in imports from Vietnam and reiterated calls for the inclusion of labor provisions if a bilateral textile and apparel pact is ever negotiated.

Rep. Sander Levin (D., Mich.) made it clear to Ralph Ives, assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, that the U.S. must tie increases in market access to improvements in labor standards in a textile and apparel agreement. He made those statements during a House Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee hearing on whether Congress should reject the President’s annual renewal of Vietnam’s favorable duties and normal trade relations status.

Ives said the U.S. has only had consultations with Vietnam on a textile-apparel quota-setting pact. It is still unclear whether the U.S. is committed to beginning textile and apparel negotiations with Vietnam, although it has stated from the beginning that it would negotiate a pact.

A textile and apparel bilateral is not required, but due to domestic textile concerns about curbing import growth, limits are usually negotiated when a country has the potential for large apparel production. The U.S.-Vietnam bilateral trade agreement went into effect on Dec. 10, granting the Southeast Asian nation NTR status, which drastically lowers tariffs.

Although it has only been seven months since Vietnam was granted NTR, imports of apparel and textiles surged in the first four months of this year by 199 percent to 33.6 million square meters equivalent, according to the Commerce Department. Despite the surge, Vietnam only represents 0.17 percent of the apparel and textile import market in the U.S.

Levin said he was concerned about the increase in apparel and textiles imports from Vietnam, which were $50 million in 2001 and $65.5 million in the first four months of this year against the same year-ago period, according to Ives.

"You talk about Vietnam moving toward a free market, and free labor is an important piece of that," Levin said.

Including labor and environmental standards in trade agreements is a huge issue on Capitol Hill, one that touches practically every trade measure on the congressional agenda. Levin noted that the only labor union in Vietnam is controlled by the Communist government."The textile agreement with Cambodia was a significant step forward," Levin said. "When my staff was in Cambodia, one of the concerns was that their neighbors weren’t moving in the same direction, which would put them at a disadvantage."

The Cambodian bilateral textile agreement negotiated during the Clinton administration was the first U.S. trade pact to reward improvements in labor standards with an increase in market access.

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