Visa delay puts Chinese cashmere clothing plant at loose ends in Maryland

June 05, 1994|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Sun Staff Writer

When Chinese businessman Wang Jian Guo selected Maryland as the U.S. headquarters for this country's first cashmere clothes manufacturing and distribution plant, state and local dignitaries rolled out the red carpet and trumpeted the coup.

But since opening the doors to the Elkridge plant last August, Mr. Wang (pronounced Wong) thinks he's encountered more red tape than red carpet for his U.S. business venture. The hang-up, he believes, has come from one of the U.S. consulates in China which must approve allowing skilled workers to come to the Elkridge plant to train American workers.

Consular affairs officials in Washington are attempting to determine why visa approval for the Chinese workers has taken longer than usual.

In any case, the manufacturing floor of the new company, Wang Zi Cashmere Products, is idle. The company has been unable to offer jobs to American applicants to work its cashmere knitting machines. And company executives are worried about plans for its retail stores, called A Touch of Cashmere, scheduled for opening in Towson this fall and Tyson's Corner, in Northern Virginia, this summer.

Wang Zi wants to stock the two stores, targeted to upscale buyers, with clothes produced at the plant.

Mr. Wang, 43, doesn't speak English, but Sally Freedenthal, merchandise manager for Wang Zi's U.S. operations, says Mr. Wang is "very frustrated about this delay. He's the kind of guy who likes to get moving on something the minute he decides to do it, so he's having trouble understanding all this."

There are profits at stake. Production at Wang Zi -- the first wholly Chinese-owned company to open a manufacturing site in Maryland -- was expected to boost U.S. sales from $2.7 million to about $4 million within a year.

A key element in Mr. Wang's effort to break into the U.S. market is production of cashmere clothes designed to appeal to U.S. buyers. That element of the Elkridge facility has been stalled for at least five months because Wang Zi has been unable to get final approval the five Chinese workers needed for training American workers how to operate cashmere knitting machines.

The company's petition for U.S. visas for the five Chinese workers has languished since Jan. 14. That's when the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) gave its approval to the visa request, said Mrs. Freedenthal. The U.S. Consulate in Shenyang, China must give its approval before the workers can come to Maryland.

"We had no idea it would take this long," she said. "We really thought we'd have the American workers trained by now and be in production."

She said the company began applying for the visas for the temporary workers soon after opening the Elkridge plant.

Visas for foreigners planning to work in the United States must first be approved by the INS and the U.S. Labor Department. The visas then must be approved by the U.S. consulate in the country where the person lives.

Curt Matthews, a spokesman for the Maryland International Division of of which -- said the division was unaware of Wang Zi's dilemma.

Mark L. Wasserman, secretary of the state's Department of Economic and Employment Development, which successfully convinced Wang Zi to locate in Maryland over two other states, could not be reached for comment.

In January, he wrote to INS and the federal labor officials in support of Wang Zi's efforts to secure visas for the Chinese trainers.

In his Jan. 3 letter to INS, Mr. Wasserman noted, "The knitting of cashmere requires highly skilled workers. It takes several months to properly train a person to the skill level required at Wang Zi . . . I am confident that Mr. Wang will comply with the terms of any visa privileges granted to his employees and that they will return to China when their visas expire."

One reason visa approvals have been delayed became clear in March, when the company was informed by the consulate in Shenyang that five Chinese executives working for Wang Zi in the United States would have to return to China before visas for trainers were approved. All of the executives, said Mrs. Freedenthal, complied with that request by April.

Since then, Wang Zi has been unable to determine what is further delaying the visas, said Mrs. Freedenthal.

Nyda Bundig, a spokeswoman with the U.S. Consular Affairs Office in Washington, said her agency could not immediately determine why visa approvals for Wang Zi's Chinese workers had been held up. She said detailed information about the issue would be requested from the U.S. Consulate in Shenyang.

Normally, she said, consulate approval for visas for foreign workers interested in working temporarily in the United States takes "several weeks" after INS approval.

About 2,600 Chinese workers were granted temporary visas to work in the United States in 1993, said Ms. Bundig.

Mr. Wang has requested that the skilled workers, which now work at his production plant in China, be allowed to work in the United States for six months. The Chinese workers would initially train five to 10 Americans Wang Zi plans to hire as laborers operating cashmere knitting machines.

Mrs. Freedenthal says the Chinese trainers are needed because knitting cashmere requires highly skilled workers who must be trained properly to avoid product defects. Since the company is the first cashmere knitting plant in the United States, Mrs. Freedenthal said the company could not find American laborers who could train workers to operate the Japanese-made knitting machines Wang Zi purchased for the plant.

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