Illegal? What you need to know about ukay-ukay

Jodesz Gavilan

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Illegal? What you need to know about ukay-ukay
The commercial importation of secondhand clothing has been illegal since 1966

MANILA, Philippines – President Rodrigo Duterte on Wednesday, August 23, said he would resign if it is proven that his son is involved in smuggling. 

This stems from allegations brought about by documents from the Presidential Anti-Smuggling Group and the National Bureau of Investigation in 2007, which showed that Davao City Vice Mayor Paolo Duterte was responsible for the alleged smuggling of luxury vehicles, rice, sugar, and used clothes into the city. 

The President explained that Paolo was just helping his in-laws, whom he described as “Muslim vendors” selling jars and ukay-ukay (used clothes) in Davao. 

The importation of secondhand clothes is illegal. Republic Act 4653 prohibits “the commercial importation of textile articles commonly known as used clothing and rags.”

The law, however, was enacted in 1966 – years before the rise of ukay-ukay in the Philippines.

Despite this, the industry of selling used clothes in the Philippines is not particularly hidden – especially in Baguio City. In fact, it has even gained a huge following among Filipinos because of the low prices of the usually branded clothes.

Why importation of used clothes is illegal

Health concerns is the number one reason why the commercial importation of secondhand clothes is prohibited.  

When the law was introduced, its rationale stated that the banning is to “safeguard the health of the people and maintain the dignity of the nation.”

Those found guilty of importing used clothes for commercial purpose can face imprisonment ranging from 2 to 5 years. They are also required to pay up to P20,000 ($391).  

The used clothing confiscated, meanwhile, is expected to be burned in the presence of officials from the Department of Finance and Office of the President, according to the law.

What the Bureau of Customs is doing

The existence of the law, however, does not deter the abundance of ukay-ukay across the Philippines. In fact, the Bureau of Customs (BOC) has seized millions of pesos worth of smuggled secondhand clothing throughout the years.  

In 2015, 21 containers containing used garments were discovered in Misamis Oriental. The used clothes, estimated to be worth P52.5 million ($1.02 million), came from Malaysia and Korea.

Customs referred to this as its “biggest seizure of used clothing.”

But there are also reports that BOC employees themselves have a hand in the proliferation of ukay-ukay in the country. In 2014, an employee was arrested for allegedly seeking and accepting a bribe  to facilitate the release of shipments containing used clothing from Hong Kong and the United States.  

A 2003 Newsbreak story, meanwhile, reported that non-governmental organizations fronted for smugglers of used clothes, particularly in Baguio City.

Moves to change the law

There have been several proposals in Congress to legalize the importation of secondhand clothes for commercial purposes.

The argument behind the legalization of ukay-ukay importation hinges on the fact that it can generate more jobs and income for Filipinos and the Philippine government.

In the explanatory note of House Bill 4055 during the 14th Congress, then Cagayan de Oro Representative Rufus Rodriguez and Abante Mindanao Representative Maximo Rodriguez said the government could earn an estimated P700 million ($14 million) in taxes annually from imported secondhand clothing. 

The bill, however, did not prosper. –

P51 = $1

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Jodesz Gavilan

Jodesz Gavilan is a writer and researcher for Rappler and its investigative arm, Newsbreak. She covers human rights and impunity beats, producing in-depth and investigative reports particularly on the quest for justice of victims of former president Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs and war on dissent.