MANILA - It’s straight to the shredder for container-loads of imported second-hand clothes confiscated by the Bureau of Customs (BoC).
Sometimes passed off as donations when they enter the country, the shipments of used clothes are often distributed to thrift stores called “ukay-ukay” where they are sold to Filipinos looking for an inexpensive fashion fix.
But the government insists that despite the prevalence of “ukay-ukay” stores, these are illegal as long as their wares are “pre-loved” and come from abroad. The items are considered tantamount to smuggled goods.
When millions of pesos worth of these clothes are intercepted and seized in ports such as in Davao last September, the BoC “condemns” the clothing by sentencing them to scraps.
In BoC-accredited warehouses such as one in Guiguinto, Bulacan, workers there convert usable parts of the garments into rags to help offset costs.
But why aren’t the clothes immediately donated instead to benefit victims of fires and storms?
The BoC’s simple answer is legally, the clothes cannot be reused.
According to the half-century-old Republic Act 4653 which banned the importation of used clothing, these items “shall be burned in the presence of a representative of the General Auditing Office, Department of Finance and of the Office of the President.”
The BoC also interprets that as destroying the clothes or making it impossible for these to be resold.
Local audit and Customs officials were present when media were invited to cover the condemnation of P1.5 million worth of imported used clothing and used tires, most of which had been rotting in BoC custody since 2016.
The BoC said these clothes were shipped from places such as the United States, Japan, and Hong Kong and were left unclaimed, especially after their contents were discovered.
Rhea Gregorio, district controller of the BoC-Port of Subic, added that the source of the clothes as well as their stay in storage are a health hazard to the public.
“For safety reasons. Of course there are microbes that are present in the shipments,” she said.
Safeguarding public health was also the given reason for the law banning importing used clothes in the first place.
But the BoC has circumvented the law in the past to allow for recently-seized “ukay-ukay” to be turned over to the Department of Social Welfare and Development for relief efforts.
In 2009, used clothes blocked at first by the bureau were allowed to be donated to evacuees affected by typhoon Ondoy.
The BoC similarly did so for survivors of Typhoon Sendong in Mindanao in 2012.
Former customs commissioner Ruffy Biazon said in 2013 that donation was the best option for the confiscated clothing since these cannot be auctioned off like other seized goods.
Another former customs commissioner, Angelito Alvarez pushed for the legalization of second-hand clothing imports, saying it was a source of graft and corruption for customs workers who allow the shipments into the country.
This was followed by a bill in Congress that did not pass into law and was no longer followed up.
For now, the fate of confiscated “ukay-ukay” hangs on the directives of customs officials and on the need for donated clothing.
But until a law repeals or amends the ban on “ukay-ukay”, most of the illegally entered clothing will continue ending up in shreds.