Feldman was born into a textile family that for about 25 years owned plants in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, which at their peak employed more than 400 people. In the mid-Nineties, after the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect, his family closed its U.S. operations and he moved to Halacho, Mexico, where he opened a T-shirt factory. Today, his company, E&R Textile, employs about 500 workers, and Feldman said he’s content with his life in the Yucatán.
But he’s not so sure the current drive to further lower trade barriers and promote global commerce is such a good idea.
“Do I believe in it? No, I don’t believe in it. I believe it’s somewhat destroying our economy, the U.S. anyway,” he said in a phone interview. “I kind of have a jilted perspective, in the sense that I’m happy here, I’m glad things worked out. But in the end, who knows how long this will last?”
Through all sectors of the apparel industry — from U.S. manufacturers to U.S. retailers to foreign-owned companies with operations in Latin America, Africa and Asia — executives said they applaud the theory of using free trade to raise the standard of living of people around the world.
Both President Bush and his rival, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, describe themselves as free trade backers. But they differ on the fine points of globalization. The Bush administration has aggressively sought free trade agreements around the world, while Kerry has said if elected he’d take a step back to review many of those agreements. He’s also supported the inclusion of language on labor and environmental standards in those deals.
In Washington and Geneva, lobbyists on both sides of the free trade debate sketch out their position in stark black and white: They’re either for it or against it. But executives who every day face the realities of global trade and its effects on the people that work for them offered mixed views on the subject. In practice, they said, free trade is often a zero-sum game where one person’s gain is another’s loss. At worst, it runs the risk of not improving people’s standards of living over the long term, instead simply offering a few years of low-wage work before moving on.