The Obama administration understands the importance of trade as an engine for economic growth and is committed to brokering sound trade agreements, said Gail Strickler, assistant U.S. Trade Representative for the office of textiles.
USTR Ron Kirk “has given me an opportunity to serve the industry I know and love, and this opportunity is something I plan to take full advantage of,” said Strickler, a 30-year textile and apparel industry veteran who has been in her post just eight weeks.
SEE HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE TALK WITH GAIL STRICKLER>>
Strickler, who is in the position formerly called the special textile negotiator, is the lead negotiator for textile and apparel products and advises Kirk on industry trade matters.
Although many in the apparel industry feel there’s a lack of clarity on the Obama administration’s approach to trade, Strickler said the administration is “committed to getting the science of trade right.”
There is a focus on pursuing trade opportunities that will benefit the U.S. and engaging in better enforcement of existing trade agreements.
“We know that keeping markets open around the world and opening new ones can help us to retain and create new jobs for American workers,” Strickler said. “We also know that American jobs that are supported by trade pay an average of 18 percent more than those that are not related [to trade].”
She brings to her job a deep level of involvement in the industry.
Strickler grew up in the New York’s Garment District, and as a student at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, worked after school cutting and delivering samples for her mother’s textile manufacturing and importing firm, Saxon Textiles. She would eventually join the family business, rising to president.
After selling Saxon Textiles a few years ago, Strickler worked at Philadelphia University’s College of Textiles & Sciences on sustainability and environmental compliance programs. Previously, she was president of the Textile Distributors Association, sat on the boards of the Fashion Institute of Technology, National Council of Textile Organizations and National Cotton Board.
Strickler’s office is addressing issues with existing trade programs like DR-CAFTA (Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement.) That program has seen a staged implementation since 2004 and the Latin American market now represents the third-largest U.S. export market. However, there have been problems that have prevented the U.S. from reaping the full benefits. “I was a trade advisor on CAFTA dating back to 2004, so I remember the intent,” she said. “I was at the negotiating table when these things were discussed, and the fact that now in 2009 I’m still looking at some of these things not being resolved, it’s really at the top of my list.”
Strickler also encouraged brands and retailers to take more advantage of trade preferences available through the Haitian Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement Act, or HOPE. She traveled to Haiti last month with former President Bill Clinton to show a group of U.S. business leaders the potential of doing business in the country.
“I do hope you will consider Haiti when you are analyzing your sourcing options and take advantage of this unprecedented opportunity,” she told executives, noting Haiti was the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
The USTR has considerable work to do on pending trade agreements with Korea, Colombia and Panama, and Strickler dismissed criticism the administration was dragging its heels.
“Ambassador Kirk has repeatedly noted that a common misconception about the pending trade agreements was that they were, and I’ll quote him, ‘handed to the present administration with a bow tied around them ready to go.’ This is not the case,” she said.
Strickler said the USTR is also committed to moving the DOHA trade talks forward, but indicated progress will likely depend on large developing trading partners.
“The least-developed countries are not being asked to provide new market openings, but advanced developing countries, like China, India, South Africa and Brazil, can lead by choosing to open their markets,” she said.
Strickler touted a new initiative under way, intended to help small and medium-size businesses. The program has the potential to support emerging designers and could involve plans to “rescue and reinvigorate the garment center,” she said.
The initiative would also establish a fashion caucus in Congress that would give the industry a greater voice. A textile caucus already exists, but the hope is that it would join the fashion caucus.