A group of trade and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), including those representing apparel manufacturers, retailers and importers, is calling on Congress and the Obama Administration to reform US trade preference programs in a bid to help the world's poorest countries.

The coalition argues that a wholesale reform of these programs would help alleviate poverty, better serve US foreign and economic policy objectives - and give American consumers better access to lower-priced clothing and footwear. 

In letters sent to the Obama Administration and congressional leadership, the 29 groups point out that "preference programs, when properly structured, can have on the creation of economic opportunities, both in developing countries and in the United States."

But they also argue that delays in renewing trade pacts like the Andean Trade Preference & Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA) and the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) - both of which are set to expire at the end of this year - lead to sourcing uncertainties for exporters, importers and investors.

Instead, they would like to see the current system of lots of preference programs replaced with a single deal that offers extended preferential, duty-free market access to imports from all developing countries.

The program they propose would extend benefits to all developing countries, including advanced developing countries that meet clear eligibility criteria. But it would also include rules for terminating country and product eligibility.

They would also like it to use a simple rule of origin common to all products, and remains in effect for a period long enough to encourage long-term investment.

Another suggestion is to offer enhanced benefits for least developed countries, sub-Saharan Africa and designated low middle-income countries.

This would include an extension of duty-free, quota-free market access for all products, and a less restrictive rule of origin for eligible sub-Saharan African countries.

They also envisage help for certain countries to build trade capacity, and a requirement that all US government foreign assistance policies are aligned to support participation in local, regional and international trade.

Kevin M Burke, president and CEO of the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA), says the current set of US trade preference programs have short durations, rigid product restrictions, and complex, often contradictory, rules.

This, he points out, leads "to immense uncertainty and confusion that has severely limited the benefits of these programs."

The coalition behind the proposals includes the US Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel, AAFA, the National Retail Federation, and the Fashion Accessories Shippers Association, as well as groups like Oxfam America and the US Chamber of Commerce.