Leading textile and apparel manufacturers in Pakistan have urged the US Government to suspend all tariffs on imports from Pakistan following a dramatic slump in orders from US customers that has triggered massive job cuts and shut dozens of factories.

Although production and shipment of goods has continued uninterrupted since military action began in neighbouring Afghanistan, many major American buyers have all but stopped doing business with Pakistan and failed to place new orders for the forthcoming spring and summer 2002 season.

That shortfall has led to thousands of workers losing their jobs as factories around the country stop production completly. A recent survey of 14 apparel manufacturers in Pakistan showed a 64 per cent plunge in orders for goods that would have been made from December 2001 through February 2002.

The firms reported orders for only three million units, compared with 8.3 million for the same period a year ago. The survey, conducted by the Pakistan Textile & Apparel Group - a coalition of Pakistani textile and clothing manufacturers and buyers for US companies that import goods from Pakistan - also found that employment in those companies had fallen 32 per cent.

"Pakistan desperately needs tariff relief for our industry to survive," said group spokeswoman Aleema Khan. "Giving Pakistan the relief we are seeking will not harm the US textile industry. It will not create additional business. It will only help bring back the business we had before.

"US companies are looking for a reason to come back to Pakistan. By suspending tariffs and granting other relief, the United States can encourage them to return and allow us to keep our factories open and put our workers back to work.

She added: "Pakistan and its people stand by the United States in the war against terrorism. The United States needs to demonstrate its support for Pakistan, which desperately needs assistance to ensure that our economy remains stable and that our workers have jobs."

The US is Pakistan's single largest customer and last year imported $2.2 billion worth of Pakistani goods, with clothing and textiles accounting for around 90 per cent of that total. Pakistan's textile industry employs 60 per cent of the country's industrial workforce.