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African Unions: Used Clothing Imports “Suffocate” Local Textile Sector

Labor unions in Africa are tired of clothing castoffs from the West, which they said are “suffocating” the continent’s textile sector, according to IndustriAll Global Union, a workers’ rights group that represents 50 million workers across 140 countries.

In a statement issued last Thursday, IndustriAll urged African governments to champion “sustainable policies” that nurture local garment and textile manufacturing. A shadow of its former self, the industry once employed hundreds of thousands of people before the African debt crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, followed by a sudden deluge of cheap clothes from overseas, led to widespread factory closures. 

“We call upon governments to develop sustainable policies that promote the development of the garment and textile sector and the employment of young workers,” said Paule France Ndessomin, regional secretary for Sub Saharan Africa at IndustriAll.

Several East African countries, including Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda recently raised tariffs on imported secondhand garments in a bid to protect their domestic manufacturing industries from being outcompeted by inexpensive clothing from abroad.

Used clothing, Rwanda officials have told reporters, impugn its people’s dignity. A ban on such imports, on the other hand, would create 25,000 domestic jobs for the African nation, they said.

In response, the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association (SMART), an American trade group, filed a complaint claiming that the new tariffs imposed “significant economic hardship” on the U.S. used-clothing industry and violated the terms of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which requires participating countries to lower barriers to U.S. trade.

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SMART said that East Africa’s secondhand-apparel ban would cost the United States 40,000 jobs and $124 million in exports.

While Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya have since “committed not to phase in a ban” for secondhand products, Rwanda has stayed its course. It remained stoic even in the face of the U.S. government’s demand that it reduce its tariffs or risk losing duty-free treatment for its AGOA-eligible apparel.

“Rwanda is not making sufficient progress toward the elimination of barriers to U.S. trade and investment, and therefore is out of compliance with eligibility requirements” of the AGOA, according to the U.S. Trade Representative website.

Africa imports 32 percent of the world’s used clothes, valued at $1 billion. The primary consumers, IndustriAll said, are “poor people who can’t afford new clothes.” 

IndustriAll affiliates in Nigeria, Uganda and Zimbabwe said they are against importing used clothes because 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.”

Cheap imports from China are no better, IndustriAll added, because they make domestically produced garments more expensive. And despite tariffs, used clothing is sometimes smuggled across borders, such as in Zimbabwe, it said.

“International trade agreements should prioritize the interests of developing countries instead of promoting the dumping of used clothes on the continent,” Ndessomin added.