U.S. exports of fibers, textiles, and apparel to Colombia totaled $266 million in 2011. In the same year, U.S. imports of Colombian textiles and apparel totalled $238.7 million. But the 100-year-old Colombian textile industry, centered around the mountainous city of Medellín (known to some as “The Milan of Latin America”), has shrunk significantly thanks to increased competition from Asian manufacturers. Since 2005, Colombian apparel and textiles exports to the U.S. have dwindled by more than 50%.
Danielle Santos, a sourcing manager at Perry Ellis International, says she currently only has two orders underway in Colombia, but that the company will likely increase production there now that the free trade agreement has gone into effect. “Colombia does smaller runs and faster lead times,” Santos explained. Margins are so thin in the globalized rag trade that Chinese factories will often turn down smaller orders because they can’t deliver economies of scale. This leaves retailers who want a few thousand shirts (instead of 10,000 or 20,000) in a tight spot. Colombian factories, says Santos, are willing to complete those runs. And with ports on both the Caribbean and the Pacific, they can ship to the U.S. in a matter of days.
“The geographical situation that we have makes us more competitive,” says a spokesperson for María Claudia Lacouture, the head of the Colombian government agency in charge of promoting exports, tourism, and foreign investment.
The passage of the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement was not a smooth one. It was bitterly opposed by U.S. labor unions and some Democrats due to concerns about working conditions and political violence in Colombia. More than 2,880 labor leaders have been murdered in Colombia since 1988, according to Human Rights Watch. And for members and organizers trade unions, Colombia remains the deadliest place on earth: of the 76 labor activists killed worldwide in 2011, 29 (or nearly 40%) were murdered in Colombia, according to the International Trade Union Confederation. (Colombia also topped the list in 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, and earlier.)
The two factions responsible for the majority of the killings, according to Amnesty International, are paramilitary groups such as those that flourished in Colombia in the 1980s and 1990s, and, even more worryingly, the security forces of the Colombian state. Most of the violence and intimidation targets trade unionists in Colombia’s sugar cane, banana-picking, and mining industries; boycotts and lawsuits have been brought against U.S. companies accused of contracting with paramilitaries to murder the employees of their own Colombian subsidiaries. Student-organized protests of Coca-Cola took place in the 2000s, and in 2007, Chiquita was fined $25 million by the Justice Department for making millions of dollars worth of payments to paramilitary groups including the notorious Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC.