Business Day Chinese Textile Mills Are Now Hiring in Places Where Cotton Was King

Graphic The Rising Cost of Manufacturing

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The Rising Cost of Manufacturing

A look at the (mostly) rising costs to manufacture goods by country and a breakdown of the cost to make yarn.

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The spools of yarn are then shipped through the port of Charleston to textile and apparel manufacturers across Asia. Keer also hopes to sell to apparel manufacturers in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, where many nations enjoy privileged access to the American market as part of separate trading pacts — as long as the yarn is made in a member country.

Sheng Lu, an apparel and textiles expert at the University of Rhode Island, said the high capital intensity of modern yarn-spinning meant that American mills were becoming increasingly competitive.

“Common sense says that the U.S. imports textiles and apparel from China,” he said. “Now some of that is reversed.”

But cutting and sewing clothes, he said, still relies so much on labor that “it’s just impossible for the U.S. to be competitive.”

Investment in American textiles has not come just from China. Last year, the ShriVallabh Pittie Group, a leading textile manufacturer in India, broke ground on a $70 million factory in Sylvania, Ga., the area’s first new manufacturing plant in four decades. And Santana Textiles, a large Brazilian denim manufacturer, announced in 2012 that it would open a spinning, dyeing and weaving facility in Edinburg, Tex., though full-scale production has been delayed.

“The whole textile world is looking at us,” Vinod Pittie, chairman of the ShriVallabh Pittie Group, said at the factory’s groundbreaking ceremony, predicting that the success of the venture would draw other entrepreneurs to open plants in Georgia.

For residents of South Carolina, Keer’s arrival could not have come soon enough. A generation of weavers and spinners lost their jobs when Springs Industries, which once ran some of the world’s biggest cotton mills in the city of Lancaster, closed its last plant in 2007, selling off its machines to a company in Brazil.

The global economic crisis hit soon afterward. By June 2009, Lancaster County’s unemployment rate had reached 18.6 percent.

“They shut them down one by one,” said Donnie R. Gordon, who spent 17 years weaving cotton at Springs Industries until he was laid off in the 1990s. He now works in maintenance for the Lancaster County school system. “You could make good money at the mills, but those jobs just went away.”

But shrinking manufacturing jobs have spurred a willingness in places like Lancaster County to work for lower pay, making them increasingly attractive production bases. Global manufacturers have also been drawn to so-called right-to-work states like South Carolina, where there is little unionization.

“I think I’m going to like it here,” said Enabel Perez, a former apparel factory worker and one of Ms. Ni’s trainees. Ms. Perez said she had jumped at Keer’s call for workers, an event welcomed in Lancaster County with a segment on the evening news.

Keer’s gamble in America is not without risks. The strong dollar, for one, has added to the costs of producing in the United States. Water shortages in Arizona and California could also threaten cotton production, as well as jeopardize already endangered cotton subsidies.

The outcome of stalled negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade agreement that leaves out China, will also affect Keer’s American prospects. American negotiators are pushing for rules that would require apparel makers in member countries to use yarn from within the trade zone to enjoy tariff reductions. By producing yarn in America, Keer is hedging its bets, making sure it can continue to supply yarn to apparel manufacturers to countries like Vietnam that are within the T.P.P. trade zone.

Then there are the cultural differences. Ms. Ni, one of 15 Chinese trainers at Keer’s Indian Land plant, complained softly of American workers’ occasional tardiness. In China, she said, managers can dock the pay of workers who show up late. But here, she said, she felt frustrated that she could not discipline tardy staff.

Robbie Sowers, a 32-year textile industry veteran who maintains the plant’s spinning machines, called such differences minor. He said Keer managers had started giving workers six minutes’ leeway before calling them late.

“There’s a lot of talent and experience here in South Carolina,” he said. “It’s just a matter of getting used to the American way of working.”

As she walked through the factory floor, Ms. Ni pointed to digital screens at the end of each row of spinning machines, which displayed in real time, out of a score of 100, how efficiently those machines were kept running by their operators. The screens flashed: 76, 85, 90. Experienced workers in China rarely let that number drop below 97, she said.

“They’re learning,” she said. “I have to be patient.”
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