Trade groups representing apparel retailers and importers are urging members of Congress to revamp pending legislation being debated today (11 June) that would grant duty-free access for certain products imported into the US from Pakistan and Afghanistan.

They argue that unless apparel categories like cotton trousers and shirts are included as beneficiaries of the bill it will be little more than a "hollow gesture" and will have limited impact in bringing critical economic development to the war-torn regions of Pakistan.

"As currently drafted," the plans represent "only symbolic assistance for our allies in Pakistan and Afghanistan," says a letter sent to members of Congress by the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA), the National Retail Federation (NRF), the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) and the US Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel (USA-ITA).

First crafted by the Bush Administration more than two years ago, the Afghanistan-Pakistan Security and Prosperity Enhancement (PEACE) Act is part of wider measures to strengthen Pakistan's economy over the next five years and reduce terrorism in the region.

Among its proposals it intends to set up reconstruction opportunity zones (ROZs) on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border to produce products that would enter the United States duty-free.

Currently, the legislation excludes virtually all apparel from the program, with benefits extended to categories such as cotton towels and bedding (sheets, blankets) with some restrictions.

But the trade groups want to see duty-free treatment extended to all textile and apparel products, and especially to cotton trousers and shorts and cotton knit tops - which are already among Pakistan's main exports.

These products account for 64% of apparel exports from Pakistan to the US, and more than a quarter of all exports from Pakistan to the US market - and are most likely to generate employment opportunities in zones near the border region, they say.

But cotton knit shirts and cotton trousers face US duties that average around 17%.

"Configuring the ROZ program to include these items will give Pakistan a fighting chance in this competitive industry."

They also want Congress to re-think the location of the proposed ROZ areas, most of which are limited to extremely remote areas caught up in the midst of intense fighting.

A proposed amendment to the existing language of the bill, seen by just-style, calls for duty-free treatment of certain textile and apparel products from designated Reconstruction Opportunity Zones within Afghanistan or Pakistan until 30 September 2024.