by Someshwar Singh

Geneva, 3 Mar 2000 -- While developing countries are yet to see their market concerns in textiles effectively addressed in the World Trade Organization, a case of social dumping of used textiles in their markets from the developed world has been revealed in the latest issue of the Trade Union World magazine.

An article by Jacky Delorme traces the chain of donation of second-hand clothing in the western world, their handling by trade interests, and ultimate sale in the poorer developing countries.

"(It) is more a matter of good money than of good intentions," says the article.

"The main result of this trade could well be the end of the textile industry in poor countries," the article affirms.

For southern trade unionists, the whole process is wrong. Social dumping is the accusation. The massive introduction of second-hand clothes (from countries where textiles and clothing industry has been heavily protected for over 35 years, through import quotas and tariffs) competes with local production in the developing world and de-structures the economy. As a result, tens of thousand of workers lose their jobs.

This second-hand export trade started once the poor countries began to liberalise their economies under pressure of international money-lenders.

This is what happened in Zimbabwe in 1992. This cotton-producing country possessed a major textile sector, but the impact of structural adjustment plans that began to be applied that year soon proved to be catastrophic.

Moreover, a persistent drought prevented the textile factories from working full-time. The result was that the population got used to buying second-hand clothing. This continued even after the Government decided the following year to forbid this import trade, since smuggling took over. The same thing happened in South Africa and Nigeria, two other major textile producers in Africa.

For thousands, perhaps millions of households in the developed world, the act of packaging their used clothing and shoes and putting them in the boxes marked for charities (instead of throwing them in the waste bins), normally begins as an act of generosity and charity.

It may also be the case that people find no further use for their personal belongings anymore.

The article cites Magasins du Monde/Oxfam and Terre as the major players in the Belgian market in terms of collecting second-hand clothing.

Says Carole Crabbe of Magazins du Monde/Oxfam, "In the first place, this activity enables us to finance North-South solidarity projects. It brings in 5 to 7 million Belgian francs a year for this purpose, which is very considerable. Next, it makes it possible for everyone to buy clothes at low prices and, lastly, it makes it possible to re-cycle clothing."

The fact is that these second-hand clothing are then sold to intermediaries in Belgium and in western countries, or else directly in poor countries.

"In the United States, one of these companies that buys up lots of used textiles from charities and re-sells them in poor countries, made a 3,000 percent gain recently," says Neil Kearney, General Secretary of the international textile workers' federation (ITGLWF).

"A few years ago, our American member, UNITE, waged a campaign against one of the major US second-hand clothes dealers. In their factory, workers were not allowed to use their own names. They had numbers!

"Most of the workforce of the American exporter is composed of undeclared immigrant workers. Many of these people were already employed in the textile industry in their home country, where they lost their jobs as a result of the disastrous impact of second-hand clothing imports on local undertakings."

According to the article, the second-hand clothing dealers camouflage their profiteering by donating a tiny proportion of their profits to social charities -- with a fanfare of publicity.

The article refers to another organization, Tvind in Denmark, involved in such trade and questions its real charitable nature. Tvind, along with Humana and Dapp, the article says, is a "commercial empire" that controls the entire process from collecting through to selling and also manages so-called development projects in southern countries.

For about a decade now, the international textile workers federation has been campaigning in the northern countries to stop exports of this damaging trade in second-hand clothing from North to South, but apparently in vain.

It is a case of social dumping where, even if the initiative is respectable, it has bad effects, says the article.

The article challenges the attempts of the industrialized countries, and their NGOs active in this field, to minimise the adverse impact of this trade, and even the charge of 'dumping',

Salvatore Vetro of Terre viewed the criticisms as without foundation, and cited a report produced in the Netherlands to the effect that the exported second-hand clothing did not compete with local production, and that there was even job creation.

The ITGLWF scoffs at these claims. Jobs no doubt are created by the second hand trade - but in the informal sector, among street vendors. But before creating such jobs in the informal sector, many more jobs are destroyed in the formal sector. And while the Dutch report claimed that 110-120 jobs were created in the Netherlands, thousands of jobs were lost elsewhere,

Since the beginning of this year, Oxfam's Magasins du Monde have been considering a code of ethics. "We want to make all the players (from the consumer to the second-hand clothes dealer, as well as the public authorities) face up to their responsibilities and optimise the sector, particularly by emphasizing sale and re-cycling in the country of origin, thereby limiting exporting and potential social dumping to the greatest possible extent."

For the suffering once-textile workers in the developing world, those intentions may sound like music to the ear, but what could save other potential victims is plain simple ban on all exports of second-hand clothing, the author of the article contends. (SUNS4620)