Indonesia’s war on secondhand clothes riles local sellers

Jakarta is cracking down on used clothing imports after reports of items donated for recycling ending up on sale.

Indonesia has banned imports of secondhand clothing since 2015 [Aisyah Llewellyn]

Medan, Indonesia – Siti, who sells used clothing in the Indonesian city of Medan, usually cannot wait for Ramadan.

During the Muslim holy month, shoppers flock to her stall in one of the city’s largest secondhand-clothes markets to buy clothes ahead of the Eid holiday.

But this year, the prospect of crowds fills Siti with dread.

As Indonesia wages war on used clothes, her stock is dwindling to the point she is worried about empty racks.

“I hope there will still be stock available,” Siti, who did not want to give her full name, told Al Jazeera. “If there are no clothes, that means no money.”

Indonesia has long been home to a booming trade in used clothing despite the efforts of the government, which in 2015 banned imports of second-hand garments on the ostensible basis that they threaten public health and the local textile industry. Sales of locally-sourced used clothes are not covered by the ban.

The trade in secondhand clothes has come under renewed scrutiny from authorities since an investigation by the Reuters news agency in March, which found that donated second-hand shoes in Singapore were being sent to Indonesia for sale instead of being recycled, as promised, by a programme in the city-state.

The expose prompted Jakarta to announce increased customs checks and monitoring at ports. Indonesia’s trade minister, Zulkifli Hasan, declared a renewed war on used clothing that would target not only illegal imports but local thrift shops as well.

Late last month, Hasan attended an event in West Java to destroy more than 7,000 bundles of illegally imported secondhand clothes valued at $5.3bn.

“This is a follow-up to a directive from the President [Joko “Jokowi” Widodo]. We have done this several times and this is the climax,” Hasan told local media.

At the same event, Teten Masduki, the minister for cooperatives and small and medium enterprises, cast the crackdown as an effort to protect local businesses.

Colourful sport T-shirts and hoodies hang from racks in market stalls to the right of a walkway. On the left, the stalls are shut by a blue tarpaulin.
Authorities in West Java last month destroyed illegally imported secondhand clothes valued at $5.3bn [Aisyah Llewellyn]

Customs authorities say illicit importers source the clothes from other Asian countries, such as Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand, before sorting them into categories, like denim and baby clothing, and selling them in bulk to individual sellers.

For sellers like Siti, whose garments make their way to Indonesia from Singapore via the Indonesian port of Tanjung Balai, the crackdown has made business difficult.

“I hope we can still buy used clothes but I have heard that if the authorities find any being transported, they immediately set fire to them,” said Siti, who typically sells a bag-load of used garments costing about $536 every few weeks.

Hotnida Sianturi, another used-clothing seller in Medan, said she gets her clothing from Korea or Japan, but sourcing products has become increasingly difficult as importers are scared their wares will be seized and incinerated.

Fortunately for Sianturi, she still has some stock left to tide her over for the time being.

“I had a kind of instinct that there would be a problem,” she told Al Jazeera. “I don’t know what I will do if I can’t get any more stock. I hope the government will be able to come to an agreement with importers.”

While sellers have protested the ban, some Indonesians have welcomed it. Rio Priambodo, an official at the Indonesian Consumer Foundation non-profit, said the foundation strongly supported the measure.

A woman touches some pants in a market stall. There are empty stalls around her.
Secondhand clothes sellers in Indonesia say the government’s ban on imports of used garments makes no sense [Aisyah Llewellyn]

“From a health point of view, used clothing presents a risk as it could carry bacteria or fungi that can bring diseases from other countries into Indonesia,” Priambodo told Al Jazeera.

“It is also not good for the local economy because it means that the Indonesian textile industry will decrease production if people are buying second-hand clothes from abroad. Second-hand clothes can also affect the environment. If people don’t buy them because they are in bad condition, then they become rubbish clogging up Indonesian landfills.”

For seller Sianturi, such arguments are hard to take seriously.

“The local textile industry is expensive and the quality is not as good as imported products,” she said. “I’m not trying to disparage the industry but if you want branded clothes at an affordable price, the only way to get them is second-hand from abroad.”

Kosman Samosir, a lecturer in business law at Santo Thomas Catholic University in Medan, said that while there might be justifiable reasons for a ban, the measure had only resulted in more smuggling.

He said the government should understand why many Indonesians might want to buy second-hand clothes in a country where more than 26 million people are officially recorded as living below the poverty line.

“I personally agree with selling used clothing,” Samosir said. “It gives people who don’t have the means to buy branded clothes at full price the chance to still own a piece.”

“However, there is a big difference legally between selling secondhand clothes within Indonesia to customers who need to clothe their families cheaply and importing used clothing from abroad. That is something that needs to be looked at carefully in the future.”

Source: Al Jazeera