By Kristi Ellis
with contributions from John Zarocostas
 on April 2, 2015

WASHINGTON — Apparel imports from Cambodia fell more than 20 percent in February as worker strikes and political instability appeared to impact shipments, while imports from Vietnam fell for the first time in more than two years, the Commerce Department’s trade report showed Thursday.

The report also reflected that a resurgence in Western Hemisphere manufacturing appears to be benefiting Central American countries, some of which posted strong increases in imports to the U.S. in February. While the West Coast ports dispute that caused delays and congestion into late February impacted imports Asia, other factors were also at play.

Combined apparel and textile imports from the world to the U.S. rose 0.2 percent to 4.3 billion square meter equivalents in February compared with a year earlier. Apparel imports inched up 0.15 percent to 1.98 billion SME, while textile imports rose 0.2 percent to 2.3 billion SME.

Apparel imports from Cambodia fell 20.2 percent to 73 million SME in February compared with a year earlier, while apparel imports from Vietnam dipped 1.5 percent to 222 million SME. The decline from Vietnam was the first monthly falloff since September 2012, according to data provided by International Development Systems.

“The very logical and likely explanation for the decline in apparel imports from Vietnam is the disruptions at the West Coast ports and, of course, the Lunar New Year celebration, which often depresses shipments during the month,” said Julia Hughes, president of the U.S. Fashion Industry Association. “It’s not surprising for Cambodia. They have been losing share because of disruptions in the industry due to protests. There are a number of companies that have revised their sourcing strategies in Cambodia because of the conditions with workers.”

A United Nations panel on civil and political rights voiced its concerns Thursday over reports of excessive use of force by Cambodian security forces against demonstrators, including garment workers and trade unionists, and called on the government to take immediate action to investigate complaints of killings and injuries of human rights defenders. The U.N.’s Human Rights Committee also recommended that the government should ensure “the exercise of the right to peaceful assembly is not subject to restrictions.”

Apparel imports from China, which have been fluctuating, rose 2.1 percent to 770 million SME in February compared with a year earlier. Bangladesh’s apparel imports gained 13.8 percent to 155 million SME, despite the West Coast ports congestion and previous sourcing shifts related to concern over safety in the wake of two factory tragedies there.

Nate Herman, vice president of international trade at the American Apparel & Footwear Association, said, “We saw highly skewed numbers in February because the tentative [West Coast ports] labor agreement was not reached until late February. Numbers were all over the place, with Bangladesh, China and Vietnam, and we can’t read that as a trend.”

Herman said Central America is seeing some gains as a result of a shift in sourcing to the hemisphere. Apparel imports from El Salvador rose 7.4 percent, while imports from Guatemala were up 6.2 percent, but imports from Honduras fell 5 percent.