As piles of donated clothing grow during this season of giving, many are surprised that their donations are not going directly to the needy.
Donated second-hand clothes are being sold on to traders
DUBAI // When Ayham Khalla dropped off a bag of unwanted baby clothes at a recycling bin, he expected them to end up in the hands of needy new parents.
Instead, the recycling company sold Mr Khalla's clothes to retail traders in Africa, who resell them on market stalls where quality second-hand clothing from the UAE is prized.
As piles of donated clothing grow during this traditional season of giving, many people are surprised that their donations do not go directly to the needy.
"I didn't know what would happen to them, but I thought they would go to charity," said Mr Khalla, 37, who dropped off the clothes at an Emarat petrol station in June. "I wouldn't donate there again. I didn't know someone would be making money from them."
The practice is neither new nor necessarily underhand: many European and US charities sell donated clothes to recycling companies, which ship them to Africa to provide work for traders. In the UAE, organisations that collect clothes and sell them on never claim to be charities.
"I would love to be able to give all the clothes away free but we have to cover our costs," said Philip Moloney, who owns Sharjah-based Gulf States Recycling.
"We have to pay for salaries and for transport. That's why we have to charge small amounts."
Mr Moloney's company operates 170 clothing banks at petrol stations and in developments owned by Nakheel and Emaar.
After the clothes are collected from the recycling bins, a team of 30 employees sort them into different grades and package them for shipment.
From Jebel Ali Port, shipments are sent to the Kenyan port of Mombasa, from where they travel by land to the capital, Nairobi, and to Kampala in Uganda. The company dispatches up to 1,700 tonnes of clothing a year.
Mr Moloney said he sells clothes to traders in Africa for a minimal amount, perhaps no more than 50 fils a garment. He said other waste recycling companies - such as those that handle cardboard or plastic - also do not openly state that they are not charitable organisations. And it costs about Dh4,000 to ship one recycling bin full of clothes to Kenya. His company has not yet broken even, two years after it was launched.
Urshita Lele, a student at American University of Dubai, left dozens of pairs of jeans and shirts at a bin in the Greens that had been donated by students.
She said the recycling bin did not make clear that the clothes would not be donated to charity.
"I know a lot of people who drop their clothes there," said Ms Lele, 20 from India. "They are all under the impression that the clothes are donated to somebody in need and not to cover costs. It should be advertised better."
Eissa Olwengo, 24, a market trader and budding entrepreneur in Dandora, an impoverished eastern suburb of Nairobi, eagerly awaits a lorry that arrives every month in his village carrying tightly packed rolls of used clothes from the UAE.
"The clothes from Dubai are the very best," he said. "They are much better quality than those from America or Europe. Most of them are almost new."
Mr Olwengo clubs in with 10 other market traders to buy bulk shipments of clothes that arrive in Nairobi. He sells the clothing at a marketplace in Dandora, which is notorious for both high-density housing and low employment.
"This kind of work creates job opportunities for us," Mr Olwengo said. "There are lots of people doing the same work here. It's the only way to make money for us." He Olwengo declined to say how much he buys or sells the clothes for.
Despite providing jobs in the short-term, the import of second-hand textiles hampers the growth of local industries. The International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers Federation, which represents unions in Africa, has labelled the trade "neocolonialism".
A report by the organisation said countries that limit the import of second-hand clothes, such as Ethiopia, had a more robust local textiles industry. "The impact is definitely detrimental to the local industry," said Steve Grinter, education secretary at the ITGLWF. "Obviously there are jobs created by market traders in the local industry, but nothing like the number of jobs that are potentially destroyed.
"We're in favour of recycling, but if people give their stuff freely, it should be distributed freely."
Mr Maloney said his company will launch a new website to explain the business and where the clothes go.
How to donate:
To donate used clothing that will be distributed for free or sold without profit, contact the following organisations:
• The Red Crescent Authority, which is sending aid to Somalia. Locations for donations can be found by calling 800 733 or by logging on to www.rcuae.ae.
• Dubai Land Department, in coordination with the charitable Beit Al Khair Society have launched a clothing-donation drive during Ramadan. Old clothes can be dropped off at the department’s headquarters on Bani Yas Road and they will be distributed to the needy in Asia and Africa.
• Take My Junk UAE is a one-man mission to redistribute unwanted goods such as clothes and furniture to labourers and low-income families. Call 050 179 4045 for more details.
* Martin Croucher