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[Opinion] The Bra Wars

Posted August. 30, 2005 06:50,   


“You couldn`t quite call it a panic, but there was a tangible mood of urgency in the lingerie department of a London Marks & Spencer store yesterday. Brassieres, especially the cheaper ones, were flying off shelves across England.” This is an excerpt from an article entitled “Trade tiff sparks tempest in a B cup” the Globe and Mail, a British daily newspaper, ran last weekend. The European Union (EU) imposed restrictions on imports of Chinese textile products in an attempt to protect the textile industry in their regions, and this sparked an economy-minded women’s rush to buy cheap brassieres as early as possible. This became known to be the "bra wars.”

January 1 of this year marked the end of an elaborate system of quotas per country and per product category, a system which regulated textile exports for 31 years. After the system was put to an end, made-in-China products flooded European and U.S. markets because no country could match China’s price competitiveness. U.S. apparel businesses, taken aback by this development, strongly demanded that restrictions be imposed on apparel imports from China.

Then, it was the time for Europe to take action. Last June, the EU reintroduced a quota on garment imports from China, yielding to pressures from France and Italy. Some product categories had already reached their quotas for this year, and 80,000 garment pieces of these product categories are stranded in ports.

Brassieres are not solely culpable for this trade tiff. Actually, the number of brassieres sitting in custom houses, not making it onto store shelves, is just 3 million. Many more sweaters and pairs of pants are in this global-trade limbo. Notwithstanding this fact, this trade skirmish is still called the “bra wars.” It’s because of the provocativeness and symbolism that this bulging lingerie carries. Just like the burning of brassieres story in the late 1960’s by radical feminists calling for women’s emancipation which has been told by people time and again.

The “bra wars” have been waged under the cause of protecting the textile industry. However, victims of the “bra wars” are likely to be those in the low-income bracket. It’s because if imports of Chinese brassieres which are about 40 percent cheaper than European ones reduce, it is those in the low-income bracket who are forced to buy more expensive ones. Brassieres are not the end of the story. It is a matter of time before cheap Chinese electronic products encroach upon markets around the world. If we are to survive in this era of trade conflict with China, we have to leave cheap products to China and devote ourselves to producing and selling high value-added products. That’s why the U.S. and Europe are striving to reform their schools with the aim to strengthen their knowledge competitiveness.

Kim Sun-duk, Editorial Writer, yuri@donga.com