미국 신문에서 ‘미국 제조업이 귀환한다’는 식의 제목과 기사를 본 적이 여러 번 있다. 한국도 그렇지만 제조 공장을 해외로 옮기는 생산 원가의 경쟁력이 사라지기 때문이다. 비싼 임금, 물류 비용, 정부의 규제 등 여러 이유가 있을 수 있다. 한국에서 많이 들은 이유는 단연 ‘비싼 인건비’, 그리고 ‘강성 노조’ 등이었다.
그런데 세상 오래 살고 볼 일이다. 임금이나 노조도 중요하겠지만 그게 전부는 아닌 것 같다.미국이 ‘에너지 혁신’으로 에너지 가격을 떨어뜨리면서 미국 내 제조업의 경쟁력이 살아나고 있고 그래서 ‘세계의 공장’이라고 불리는 중국의 기업들조차도 미국으로 둥지를 옮기고 있다는 뉴스다.
뉴욕타임스(NYT)의 관련 기사를 읽으면서 속으로 가장 놀란 것은 ‘한국의 제조업 생산 원가 경쟁력이 미국보다 못 하다’는 점이었다. 우리 한국의 미래 경쟁력은 무엇이고, 우리는 뭘 먹고 살아야 하는 걸까. 지면 사정으로 신문에는 소개하지 못한 아래 표를 보면서 드는 걱정이다.
“모든 사람들은 ‘중국에서 상품을 제조하는 비용이 미국보다 항상 저렴할 것’이라고 생각하지만 세상일은 사람들이 상상하는 것보다 훨씬 더 빠르게 변한다.”
최근 25개 주요 수출국의 제조업 생산원가를 비교한 보고서를 발표한 보스턴컨설팅그룹의 해롤드 서킨 선임파트너의 말이다. 지난해 미국과 중국의 제조업 생산원가는 1 대 0.96으로 거의 비슷하고 방적(紡績·yarn-spinnig·섬유를 가공해 실을 뽑는 일)산업의 경우엔 미국의 평균 생산원가가 중국보다 30% 저렴하기 때문이다.
뉴욕타임스(NYT)는 8월 3일 “이런 현실 때문에 미국으로 이주하는 중국의 방적공작들이 늘고 있다. 중국의 크얼그룹이 4월 사우스캐롤라이나 주의 인디언랜드에 방적공장을 건립했고 내년에 제2공장도 지을 예정”이라고 보도했다. 사우스·노스 캐롤라이나 주에만 크얼그룹을 포함해 20개 이상의 중국 섬유업체 등이 진출해 있다고 덧붙였다. 또 중국 제조 기업들이 2000∼2014년 공장 설립, 인수·합병 등을 이유로 미국에 투자한 금액만 460억 달러(약 53조8200억 원)에 이르고 그 대부분은 최근 5년에 집중돼 있다고 NYT는 전했다.
로드아일랜대 섬유의류 전문가인 셍 루 씨는 “방적업의 경우 (기계화가 이뤄지면서) 자본집약적 산업으로 변모하면서 미국 공장들의 경쟁력이 점차 증가하고 있다”며 “미국이 중국으로부터 섬유나 의류를 수입하는 게 당연시되는 시대가 더 이상 아니다”라고 말했다.
중국의 제조업 임금은 2004년 시간당 4.35달러였지만 지난해는 그의 약 3배인 12.47달러에 이르렀다. 반면 미국의 시간당 임금은 같은 기간 30% 정도만 올라 22.32달러. NYT는 “미국 제조업 노동자들의 임금이 여전히 중국보다 많지만 저렴한 에너지(천연가스) 가격, 값싼 면화 등 원자재 가격의 경쟁력, 지방 정부의 세금우대 등 다양한 지원이 그 차이를 상쇄하고 있다”고 분석했다.
이 때문에 매년 급등하는 임금, 높은 연료비와 물류비, 섬유산업에 대한 중국 정부의 각종 규제 등을 피해 방글라데시 인도 베트남 등으로 공장을 이전하는 중국 기업들이 ‘또 하나의 대안’으로 미국을 선택하고 있다는 설명이다. 또 중국을 배제한 채 협상이 진행 중인 환태평양경제동반자협정(TPP)도 중국 방적회사들의 미국행을 촉진하고 있다고 NYT는 전했다. 미국은 TPP에 참여한 12개 국가 안에서 생산된 원사로 의류를 만들 경우에만 관세 혜택을 부여하는 방안을 추진하고 있다.
Chinese Textile Mills Are Now Hiring in Places Where Cotton Was King
By HIROKO TABUCHIAUG. 2, 2015
INDIAN LAND, S.C. – Twenty-five years ago, Ni Meijuan earned $19 a month working the spinning machines at a vast textile factory in the Chinese city of Hangzhou.
Now at the Keer Group’s cotton mill in South Carolina, which opened in April, Ms. Ni is training American workers to do the job she used to do.
“They’re quick learners,” Ms. Ni said after showing two fresh recruits how to tease errant wisps of cotton from the machines’ grinding gears. “But they have to learn to be quicker.”
Once the epitome of cheap mass manufacturing, textile producers from formerly low-cost nations are starting to set up shop in America. It is part of a blurring of once seemingly clear-cut boundaries between high- and low-cost manufacturing nations that few would have predicted a decade ago.
Textile production in China is becoming increasingly unprofitable after years of rising wages, higher energy bills and mounting logistical costs, as well as new government quotas on the import of cotton.
At the same time, manufacturing costs in the United States are becoming more competitive. In Lancaster County, where Indian Land is located, Keer has found residents desperate for work, even at depressed wages, as well as access to cheap and abundant land and energy and heavily subsidized cotton.
Robbie Sowers, 32, maintains the spinning machines at the Keer factory in South Carolina. Credit Travis Dove for The New York Times
Politicians, from the county to the state to the federal government, have raced to ply Keer with grants and tax breaks to bring back manufacturing jobs once thought to be lost forever.
The prospect of a sweeping Pacific trade agreement that is led by the United States, and excludes China, is also driving Chinese yarn companies to gain a foothold here, lest they be shut out of the lucrative American market.
Keer’s $218 million mill spins yarn from raw cotton to sell to textile makers across Asia. While Keer still spins much of its yarn in China, importing the raw cotton from America, that is slowly changing.
“The reasons for Keer coming here? Incentives, land, the environment, the workers,” Zhu Shanqing, Keer’s chairman, said on a recent trip to the United States.
“In China, the whole yarn manufacturing industry is losing money,” he added. “In America, it’s very different.”
Since Beijing and Washington resumed trade relations in the early 1970s, the United States has mostly run a huge trade deficit, as Americans consumed billions of dollars in cheap electronics, apparel and other Chinese goods.
But surging labor and energy costs in China are eroding its competitiveness in manufacturing. According to the Boston Consulting Group, manufacturing wages adjusted for productivity have almost tripled in China over the last decade, to an estimated $12.47 an hour last year from $4.35 an hour in 2004.
In the United States, manufacturing wages adjusted for productivity have risen less than 30 percent since 2004, to $22.32 an hour, according to the consulting firm. And the higher wages for American workers are offset by lower natural gas prices, as well as inexpensive cotton and local tax breaks and subsidies.
Today, for every $1 required to manufacture in the United States, Boston Consulting estimates that it costs 96 cents to manufacture in China. Yarn production costs in China are now 30 percent higher than in the United States, according to the International Textile Manufacturers Federation.
“Everybody believed that China would always be cheaper,” said Harold L. Sirkin, a senior partner at Boston Consulting. “But things are changing even faster than anyone imagined.”
Rising costs in China are causing a shift of some types of manufacturing to lower-cost countries like Bangladesh, India and Vietnam. In many cases, the exodus has been led by the Chinese themselves, who have aggressively moved to set up manufacturing bases elsewhere.
In recent years, the United States has started to get more attention from that exodus. From 2000 to 2014, Chinese companies invested $46 billion on new projects and acquisitions in the United States, much of it in the last five years, according to a report published in May by the Rhodium Group, a New York research firm.
The Carolinas are now home to at least 20 Chinese manufacturers, including Keer and Sun Fiber, which set up a polyester fiber plant in Richburg, S.C., last year. And in Lancaster County, negotiations are underway with two more textile companies, from Taiwan and the Chinese mainland.
“I never thought the Chinese would be the ones bringing textile jobs back,” said Keith Tunnell, president of the Lancaster County Economic Development Corporation, who helped put together subsidies for Keer estimated at about $20 million, including infrastructure grants, revenue bonds and tax credits.
The inner workings of Keer’s factory in Lancaster County help demonstrate why yarn can now be produced for such a low cost in the United States and point to the kind of capital-intensive manufacturing that could thrive again in America.
Inside the 230,000-square-foot spinning plant, giant machines help clean the seeds and dirt from the cotton and send the fluff into carding machines that assemble the cotton into thick, long ropes of fiber. Workers then feed the ropes into machines that spin the cotton into spools of yarn or thread.
The work is highly automated, with the factory’s 32 production lines churning out about 85 tons of yarn a day. Even when Keer opens a second factory next year, it will hire just 500 workers, a fraction of the thousands of workers who toiled at cotton mills across the South for much of the 19th and 20th centuries – a big reason Keer is able to keep costs down.
The spools of yarn are then shipped through the port of Charleston to textile and apparel manufacturers across Asia. Keer also hopes to sell to apparel manufacturers in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, where many nations enjoy privileged access to the American market as part of separate trading pacts – as long as the yarn is made in a member country.
Sheng Lu, an apparel and textiles expert at the University of Rhode Island, said the high capital intensity of modern yarn-spinning meant that American mills were becoming increasingly competitive.
“Common sense says that the U.S. imports textiles and apparel from China,” he said. “Now some of that is reversed.”
But cutting and sewing clothes, he said, still relies so much on labor that “it’s just impossible for the U.S. to be competitive.”
Investment in American textiles has not come just from China. Last year, the ShriVallabh Pittie Group, a leading textile manufacturer in India, broke ground on a $70 million factory in Sylvania, Ga., the area’s first new manufacturing plant in four decades. And Santana Textiles, a large Brazilian denim manufacturer, announced in 2012 that it would open a spinning, dyeing and weaving facility in Edinburg, Tex., though full-scale production has been delayed.
“The whole textile world is looking at us,” Vinod Pittie, chairman of the ShriVallabh Pittie Group, said at the factory’s groundbreaking ceremony, predicting that the success of the venture would draw other entrepreneurs to open plants in Georgia.
For residents of South Carolina, Keer’s arrival could not have come soon enough. A generation of weavers and spinners lost their jobs when Springs Industries, which once ran some of the world’s biggest cotton mills in the city of Lancaster, closed its last plant in 2007, selling off its machines to a company in Brazil.
The global economic crisis hit soon afterward. By June 2009, Lancaster County’s unemployment rate had reached 18.6 percent.
“They shut them down one by one,” said Donnie R. Gordon, who spent 17 years weaving cotton at Springs Industries until he was laid off in the 1990s. He now works in maintenance for the Lancaster County school system. “You could make good money at the mills, but those jobs just went away.”
But shrinking manufacturing jobs have spurred a willingness in places like Lancaster County to work for lower pay, making them increasingly attractive production bases. Global manufacturers have also been drawn to so-called right-to-work states like South Carolina, where there is little unionization.
“I think I’m going to like it here,” said Enabel Perez, a former apparel factory worker and one of Ms. Ni’s trainees. Ms. Perez said she had jumped at Keer’s call for workers, an event welcomed in Lancaster County with a segment on the evening news.
Keer’s gamble in America is not without risks. The strong dollar, for one, has added to the costs of producing in the United States. Water shortages in Arizona and California could also threaten cotton production, as well as jeopardize already endangered cotton subsidies.
The outcome of stalled negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade agreement that leaves out China, will also affect Keer’s American prospects. American negotiators are pushing for rules that would require apparel makers in member countries to use yarn from within the trade zone to enjoy tariff reductions. By producing yarn in America, Keer is hedging its bets, making sure it can continue to supply yarn to apparel manufacturers to countries like Vietnam that are within the T.P.P. trade zone.
Then there are the cultural differences. Ms. Ni, one of 15 Chinese trainers at Keer’s Indian Land plant, complained softly of American workers’ occasional tardiness. In China, she said, managers can dock the pay of workers who show up late. But here, she said, she felt frustrated that she could not discipline tardy staff.
Robbie Sowers, a 32-year textile industry veteran who maintains the plant’s spinning machines, called such differences minor. He said Keer managers had started giving workers six minutes’ leeway before calling them late.
“There’s a lot of talent and experience here in South Carolina,” he said. “It’s just a matter of getting used to the American way of working.”
As she walked through the factory floor, Ms. Ni pointed to digital screens at the end of each row of spinning machines, which displayed in real time, out of a score of 100, how efficiently those machines were kept running by their operators. The screens flashed: 76, 85, 90. Experienced workers in China rarely let that number drop below 97, she said.
“They’re learning,” she said. “I have to be patient.”
<Alexandra Stevenson contributed reporting from New York.
A version of this article appears in print on August 3, 2015, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Chinese Textile Manufacturers Bring Jobs Back to America.>