Thriving Honduran Sock Industry May Disappear In the last five years, the sock industry has exploded in Honduras, thanks to duty-free sock exports to the U.S. That duty-free status may end soon, dashing the dreams of one young Honduran to be her country's first female sock-knitting machine technician.
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Thriving Honduran Sock Industry May Disappear

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Thriving Honduran Sock Industry May Disappear

Thriving Honduran Sock Industry May Disappear

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

By the end of the year, President Bush is almost certainly going to reimpose a tax. It's a very specific one: an import tariff on socks from Honduras. The tariff is intended to protect one of this country's oldest and, frankly, least robust industries, sock manufacturing.

Yesterday, we heard Adam Davidson's report from the heart of U.S. sock country, Fort Payne, Alabama. Today, he takes us to Honduras.

ADAM DAVIDSON: Joheny Avila has a dream. She's been working hard every day on nothing else for two years. She wants to be the first woman sock-knitting machine technician in Honduras.

Ms. JOHENY AVILA (Student, IPC): (Speaking foreign language)

DAVIDSON: She says there are no other options for her. The brand-new Honduran sock industry just pays more than anything else. Socks are the only way she can improve her life. Avila doesn't know that by mid-December, the U.S. government is likely to rescind duty-free status for Honduran sock exports. Sock makers may move to other cheaper countries. But Avila doesn't know anything about U.S. tariff policy and its impact on her life, so she spends her days at Honduras's leading sock school.

Mr. COLIN MCLERNON (Executive Director, Instituto Politecnico Centroamericano): Okay. We're going to go down. We're going to start at the far end of the hall and work our way through the whole system here.

DAVIDSON: Colin McLernon runs the grandly named Instituto Politecnico Centroamericano. It's a brand-new, high-tech center designed to solve a problem. The U.S. gave that duty-free status to Honduras just over 20 years ago. The idea was to stimulate an industrial revolution in this poor, agrarian country. It worked. Lots of foreign companies built new factories here to take advantage of easy access to the U.S. market. They found that their workers, the children of illiterate farmers, needed special training.

McLernon points to a poster hanging in one of the classrooms.

Mr. MCLERNON: This is a dress code - shirt tucked in, combed hair. Everything we're doing here is training these kids for the corporate world.

DAVIDSON: The sock industry has a strict policy. They won't hire anyone under 18. But students in the training school can be as young as 15. Classrooms are set up like mini sock factories with real equipment. Students also learn electronics, business ethics, English. It's a lot to learn for someone like Joheny Avila, who only has a sixth-grade education.

Unidentified Woman: Joheny? So what do you think? If a customer is angry, what am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to scream back?

Ms. AVILA: No. That can be bad for you.

Unidentified Woman: All right. Exactly. When the customer is angry…

DAVIDSON: Avila is tiny, under 5 feet tall and only 17. She's going to school, she says, so she can make enough to help support her parents and her five younger brothers and sisters. I asked if we could visit her home. Avila agrees and leads us up the side of a mountain.

Ms. AVILA: (Through translator) The road here is very uneven. It has lots of holes. It's dangerous, too. Thieves hide around here.

DAVIDSON: Avila's family lives near the peak in a concrete box with a rough metal roof on a little plot with a few chickens and pigs wandering around.

Mr. JOSE DAVID (Joheny's Father): (Through translator) This was all open fields when we came here 14 years ago. I built the house myself. Since people have moved in, little by little, the city is starting to build a road now.

DAVIDSON: Avila's dad, Jose David, came here from a farm to work in those new factories. But with a family of eight, they often ran out of food.

Mr. DAVID: (Through translator) After Joheny finished middle school, we were very, very short on money. We didn't have money for her lunch or bus. She walked several miles to get there. It was hard. She had to quit school.

DAVIDSON: Joheny was worried. She thought she'd become one of those girls downtown selling used clothes, homemade food or who knows what else for a few pennies an hour. Then she heard about the sock school, took the entrance exam and did so well, she got a scholarship and a stipend. She's been told that right after her 18th birthday next March, she can start work and make $600 a month. Her dad is thrilled.

Mr. DAVID: (Through translator) That money would change everything for us. She could buy whatever she wants, things that we can't buy for her. Yes, we would be very, very happy with that salary.

DAVIDSON: Joheny wants to work at the massive sock plant in the Free Trade Zone built by the Canadian apparel giant, Gildan. It is the largest sock factory ever built anywhere in the world.

Ms. FRANCES LYNCH (Director, Gildan Plant): As far as I know, it's pretty impressive. I'm very proud of it, very proud of it.

DAVIDSON: Frances Lynch runs the mill. It's not just the world's largest. It's probably also the most technically advanced, filled with the latest in high-tech sock-making equipment, which is saying a lot for a factory that not long ago was nothing more than a half-finished concrete building.

Ms. LYNCH: First time I was here it was last year, August.

DAVIDSON: Wait, there was nothing here a year ago?

Ms. LYNCH: Nothing. Nothing here one year ago in August, one year ago.

DAVIDSON: Now, there's this absurdly large knitting floor with thousands of knitting machines, each about the size of a dishwasher. They're still putting in more every day.

Ms. LYNCH: We started at the wall and headed this way.

DAVIDSON: That's like a football field away.

Ms. LYNCH: Yeah, a football field away.

DAVIDSON: Picture it - a football field with long orderly rows of machines each churning out sock after sock. This is where Joheny will work, running around repairing whichever machine breaks down. That is, if the plant is still here.

Gildan built in Honduras and not, say in China or Bolivia, because of that duty-free access to the U.S. If the U.S. takes that away, Gildan strategists will recalculate. With a sudden increase in cost for Honduran exports, they might decide to make socks somewhere else.

Ms. LYNCH: Common sense tells you we would take a look at it. But we'll do whatever is best for Gildan, whatever happens.

DAVIDSON: When you can build the biggest sock factory in the world in a few months, you can also take that factory somewhere else just as quickly. Gildan isn't talking, but many in the Honduran government are worried that if the U.S. does take away their duty-free status, this plant and the entire sock industry will just go away.

Adam Davidson, NPR News.

BLOCK: You can hear Adam's report on the sock industry in Fort Payne, Alabama at

SIEGEL: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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