What happened next, though, was not part of the plan: Yen opened a factory in Vietnam and began exporting to the United States from there. Others did the same. He is now building a big plant in Indonesia and hopes to sell even more to the United States.
America’s own furniture industry, said Yen, “can never compete with Asia.”
The result: Imports now account for about 70 percent of the U.S. market for beds and similar items, up from 58 percent before Washington intervened to try and protect domestic manufacturers from Chinese “dumping,” or the export of goods at unfairly low prices.
The United States and China have exchanged accusations of dumping for years and imposed tit-for-tat duties. All along, though, China has generally come out on top: Its trade surplus with the United States rose to $273 billion in 2010, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures, more than three times the level of a decade earlier.
The trade concerns have led to growing calls for tougher action from Washington to stem the tide and protect U.S. jobs. But do tariffs work? In the case of bedroom furniture, they’ve clearly helped slow China’s export machine. In 2004, before tariffs went into force, China exported $1.2 billion worth of beds and such to the United States. The figure last year was just $691 million.
Over the same period, however, imports of the same goods from Vietnam — where wages and other costs are even lower than in China — have surged, rising from $151 million to $931 million. The loss of jobs in America, meanwhile, only accelerated. The number of Americans now employed making bedroom furniture is less than half what it was when the tariffs began.
Furniture workers in Dongguan, a throbbing industrial city near Hong Kong, earn about $170 a month, compared with less than $80 in Vietnam. Their American counterparts make about $12 an hour.
“This whole saga is a perfect example of good intentions gone completely haywire,” said Keith Koenig, president of City Furniture, a big Florida-based retailer and critic of the tariffs. Like many retailers, he relies on imported goods, which are cheaper than those made in America.
The only Americans getting more work as a result of the tariffs are Washington lawyers, who have been hired by both U.S. and Chinese companies. Their work includes haggling each year over private “settlement” payments that Chinese manufacturers denounce as a “protection racket.”
Fearful of having their tariff rates jacked up, many Chinese furniture makers pay cash to their American competitors, who have the right to ask the Commerce Department to review the duties of individual companies. Those who cough up get dropped from the review list.