The Uganda Importers and Exporters Association, for instance, estimates that the value of secondhand clothing imports to that country in 2002 exceeded $22 million and that 80 percent of Ugandans buy such garments.
In many developing countries, especially in Africa, the textile industry is the main provider of jobs, but a recent ITGLWF report says tens of thousands of workers have lost their livelihood recently because of the trade in used garments.
Losing one’s job can be devastating in Africa, where workers often support extended families numbering as many as 20 persons.
According to the federation, about 1,000 people work in the textile industry in Malawi, 27,000 in Zambia, 35,000 in Kenya, 47,000 in Ethiopia, 48,000 in Zimbabwe, 85,000 in Mauritius and 225,000 in South Africa.
ITGLWF also estimates that 4 million to 5 million people are dependent on the earnings of the half-million workers employed in the garment industry in those seven countries.
“The damage had already been done … and what damage,” Mr. Kearney said, pointing out that at least 25,000 textile and clothing jobs have already disappeared in Zimbabwe, owing directly or indirectly to imported used clothing.
He cited a recent ITGLWF internal document, saying 40,000 workers were already unemployed when the textile industry ran into financial difficulties in Uganda, and 15,000 more are now unemployed after seven major textile industries shut down.
Mr. Kearney said Angola, Djibouti, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania and Togo are among other African textile industries that are hard-hit.
The continent is losing its capacity to produce clothing.
Imports of used garments are “neocolonialism in action in its purest form,” said the ITGLWF internal document.
A U.N. Industrial Development Organization report last year said that if the Nigerian government could stop imports of used clothing, it could revitalize the local textile industry within five years, create at least 75,000 jobs, generate $500 million each year through exports and attract $250 million in direct foreign investment.
Some countries — including South Africa, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Eritrea — have imposed restrictions or bans.
But importers continued to smuggle the clothes into those countries anyway, attracted by the seemingly inexhaustible demand.
“Workers and their unions in the countries concerned and internationally have no objection to the collection of used clothing for charitable and humanitarian purposes,” said Mr. Kearney. “They object to the fact that used clothing collected for the poor then becomes a big commercial operation.”
“Charities must stop exporting poverty,” he added. “We have to ensure that used clothing donated for the poor is used for that purpose and distributed free of charge, thus avoiding the damage being caused in developing countries.”