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African unions condemn global trade in used clothes as it suffocates textile sector

7 June, 2018African countries export cotton to Asia where it is spun into yarn and made into fabric from which garments are made and sold to big brands in Europe and the USA. Charity and thrift shops then buy the clothes after they have been worn and discarded. On the bottom of the consumption chain are African countries that import bales of the used clothes, and even underwear, for sale in the thriving informal markets common on the continent.

Africa imports 32 per cent of the world’s used clothes valued at US$1 billion and the main customers are poor people who can’t afford new clothes. The global trade rakes in US $3.7 billion.

Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Uganda are amongst some of the big markets for the used clothes. In the same countries, the garment and textile industries have either collapsed or are struggling with thousands of jobs lost.

With little success, governments have tried to ban or impose huge tariffs on the used clothes, but as often clothes are smuggled across borders, like in Zimbabwe.

IndustriALL affiliates in Nigeria, Uganda and Zimbabwe are against importing used clothes as it threatens the growth of the garment and textile sector which suffered huge blows in the 1980s and 1990s with the adoption of the neoliberal International Monetary Fund/World Bank sponsored structural adjustment policies. They argue that the growth of the sector has potential to create jobs for hundreds of thousands of young women and other workers along the value chain. The unions also say cheap imports from China made locally produced clothes more expensive.

The East African Community announced a ban on used clothes, and Rwanda implemented the ban despite threats by the US that it was violating the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), to which it is a signatory with 40 other African countries. After the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textile Association petitioned to the US Trade Representative that the ban by Rwanda would cost 40 000 jobs in the US, the East African country was suspended from AGOA.

However, facing US pressure Rwanda insisted in April that as the ban restores the “dignity” of the country’s citizens and will create over 25,000 domestic jobs, it will not withdraw the ban. On the other hand, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda opted to retain AGOA benefits and did not implement the ban.

Says Paule France Ndessomin, IndustriALL regional secretary for Sub Saharan Africa:

We call upon governments to develop sustainable policies that promote the development of the garment and textile sector and the employment of young workers. International trade agreements should prioritize the interests of developing countries instead of promoting the dumping of used clothes on the continent.