An ongoing debate about tariffs on foreign-made shoes stepped up this week after executives from US-based athletic shoe maker New Balance lobbied for Congressional support for domestic footwear manufacturing - while officials at footwear retailers and importers urged an end to the duties.

The division between the two sides hinges on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free trade agreement being discussed between Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the US and Vietnam. Canada and Mexico have also been invited to join the talks and will be formally admitted in the coming months.

The inclusion of Vietnam, the world's second largest footwear exporter to the US, is the main stumbling block. The country wants the US to remove duties on footwear as part of the agreement - but opponents claim Vietnam's footwear industry benefits from government intervention, currency manipulation, and low labour standards.

"Current footwear tariffs level the playing field and they're essential to keeping the doors to New Balance's factories open," said Representative Mike Michaud (D-ME), chairman of the House Trade Working Group, at a news conference on Capitol Hill yesterday (18 July).

"They make it possible for all 4,000 American workers in the footwear sector to keep their jobs. In addition, they raised $19bn in revenues over 10 years. Whether it's concerns over our debt, jobs, or our economic recovery, eliminating these tariffs would be a terrible mistake on many levels."

But executives from footwear firms including Brown Shoe Company, Clarks and Wolverine Worldwide disagree.

A letter sent to US trade representative (USTR) Ron Kirk want "a 21st century trade agreement" that will see an elimination of tariffs and flexible rules of origin - in turn creating high-end jobs, spurring international competitiveness and enabling families to buy shoes at more affordable prices.

The business leaders, who represent tens of thousands of workers across the country, note that around 300,000 Americans design, market and sell footwear in the US.

While 99% of shoes sold in the US are imported, they are subject to tariffs that range from 10% to as high as nearly 70%.

"The US footwear industry strongly supports TPP because we believe it will be good for workers and consumers," said Matt Priest, president of the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America (FDRA).

The 13th round of TPP talks concluded earlier this month, with the 14th round of negotiations set to take place in Leesburg, Virginia, from 6-15 September.