Sri Lanka's clothing exporters are protesting against the decision by shipping lines to increase fees for handling goods travelling out of the island by as much as 35%.

Starting 1 January, the Terminal Handling Charge, or THC, for a 20ft container went up from US$115 to $155, while a 40ft container costs 32% more at $245, the Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF) said Friday (5 January).

"Time and again shippers have pointed out that this is a totally unconscionable and illegal charge and an anti-competitive practice resorted to by carriers to maintain their freight rates and avoid competition," JAAF, an apex body of the apparel industry, said.

More than 50% of the island's export earnings come from the $2.7bn garment industry, which has carved out a niche to turn out top quality apparel and exotic lingerie in quick time.

But faced with regional competition and out-priced by giants like China and India, Sri Lanka is under tremendous pressure to cut costs and is now falling behind in the global race, with exports to the US dropping 1% at end-September 2006 to $1.2bn.

By Kevin Jacobs.