The administration says there are only about two dozen such cases, and that the deal on the whole favors American companies. South Korea must eliminate tariffs immediately on 98 percent of the roughly 1,500 listed products in the textiles and apparel categories, and complete the process within five years. The United States would eliminate tariffs immediately on 87 percent of listed products, and complete the process within 10 years.
The agreement also allows the textile industry to ask the government to reinstate tariffs if South Korean imports are flooding the market and hurting domestic producers.
“Textiles is a sensitive industry for the United States, and this agreement contains key provisions on tariffs and in other areas that can help keep America’s textile industry competitive,” said Carol J. Guthrie, a spokeswoman for the Office of the United States Trade Representative. “We realize that just opening markets for our textiles and apparel exporters is not enough, so the export opportunities in this agreement go hand in hand with strong rules of origin and strong textiles enforcement mechanisms.”
But many in the textile industry say the promise of a level playing field offers little comfort, because a deal between a larger economy and a smaller one inherently favors companies in the smaller country, which gain access to the larger market. South Korea’s annual consumption of goods and services is less than one-tenth the size of America’s.
“There’s not a market for our products there,” Mr. Kelley said. “We don’t have an opportunity.”
All of this is a familiar story for the textile industry. The production of shirts and sheets has shifted steadily from the United States to countries with lower-cost labor. Economists argue that this process strengthens the economy as companies and workers shift to more productive and lucrative kinds of work.
The American Apparel and Footwear Association, a trade group that includes many members who have shifted some production overseas, is among the supporters of the trade deals. The group’s president and chief executive, Kevin M. Burke, has said the deal would “create more jobs here at home,” because American workers still run textile companies, and design, transport and sell the products.
But from the perspective of the dwindling ranks of domestic manufacturers, putting existing jobs in jeopardy seems like an act of senseless destruction.
“We have felt for many years that our government isn’t supporting the idea of keeping manufacturing alive in the United States,” said Ruth A. Stephens, the executive director of the United States Industrial Fabrics Institute, a trade group that represents companies with domestic factories.
Critics also see little evidence that American workers are moving on to better jobs. The main benefit of the deals, they say, is that corporations can make goods more cheaply for consumption in the United States.
“We don’t have a free trade agreement with Great Britain, which could actually buy American products,” said Auggie Tantillo, executive director of the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition, which opposes the agreements. “Instead we have this penchant for doing free trade agreements with countries that are low-cost manufacturing centers. Why? Because multinational companies aren’t looking at this and saying, ‘It will be great to make things in Ohio and send it to South Korea.’ No, they’re looking at this and saying, ‘It will be great to make things in South Korea and send it to Ohio.’ ”