WASHINGTON — A protracted West Coast ports labor contract dispute that caused months of delays and congestion likely contributed to a decline in apparel and textile imports into the U.S. in January.
Combined apparel and textile imports from the world to the U.S. fell 5.6 percent to 4.7 billion square meters equivalents in January compared with a year earlier, according to the Commerce Department’s trade report released on Friday. Apparel imports declined 4.2 percent to 2 billion SME, while textile imports were off 6.7 percent to 2.7 billion SME.
With the slowdown and congestion at West Coast ports, which handles most of the trade from Asia, several countries in Central America appeared to benefit from a shift in sourcing from Asia. Imports from Central America are largely sent through Gulf and East Coast ports.
The Pacific Maritime Association and International Longshore and Warehouse union negotiated for more than nine months on a new labor contract, resulting in backlogs at 29 West Coast ports though mid-February and took a financial toll on thousands of businesses and farmers. The two sides reached a deal late last month, but the back-up of cargo from container ships waiting in line is still causing disruptions.
“I think that there’s a great likelihood that [the apparel import declines] in January were due to ongoing delays at West Coast ports,” said Julia Hughes, president of the U.S. Fashion Industry Association. “There was a substantial decrease in apparel imports from China, a continuation of decreases in Bangladesh, substantial decreases from Indonesia and a decrease from Cambodia.”
China, the top supplier to the U.S., posted a 7.8 percent decline to 848 million SME last month compared with a year earlier, while apparel imports from Bangladesh, the third largest supplier, posted an 8.4 percent decline to 152 million SME. Apparel imports from Indonesia, the fourth largest U.S. supplier, fell 12.2 percent to 109 million SME, while apparel imports from Pakistan, the 10th largest supplier, declined 11.3 percent to 50 million SME.
“I think it is reflective of the West Coast port situation,” said Nate Herman, vice president of international trade at the American Apparel & Footwear Association. “With all of the ships sitting out in the harbor or in the ocean, companies still can’t bring product in.”
Herman said each cargo ship carries 8,000 to 14,000 containers. Near the end of the port dispute, there were an estimated 30 ships sitting in the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports, he said.
Central America saw a boost in trade in January. Honduras led the top 10 suppliers with a 17.6 percent gain to 69 million SME in apparel imports, followed by El Salvador, with a 10.7 percent increase to 48 million SME.
Herman said apparel imports from the Central American Free Trade Agreement partner countries were up 7.3 percent year-over-year, while apparel imports from ASEAN countries, which does not include China, were down 2.7 percent. Hughes pointed to a significant increase in certain categories from some countries — imports of cotton coats from Honduras to the U.S. jumped 284 percent for the month, while imports of bras were up 200 percent.
“That would suggest there was a shift in some business from other places to Honduras,” she said. “If you were able to shift to the Western Hemisphere, the time to do it was when there was a disruption at the ports.”