African unions are calling for governments to develop sustainable policies that promote the development of the continent's garment and textile sector after condemning the US$3.7bn global trade in used clothes which they claim "suffocate" the industry.

Earlier this year, US President Donald Trump suspended the duty-free treatment for all AGOA-eligible apparel products from Rwanda after determining the African nation had unfairly blocked US exports of used clothing.

The move was the result of an out-of-cycle review of Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda's eligibility under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) following their decisions to ban imports of used clothing and footwear. 

The review followed a petition filed by the US-based Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association (SMART) against the countries' decision to phase out imports of used clothing in March of last year. SMART claimed the ban by Rwanda would cost 40,000 jobs in the US.

African countries export cotton to Asia where it is spun into yarn and made into fabric from which garments are made and sold to big brands in Europe and the US. Charity and thrift shops then buy the clothes after they have been worn and discarded. On the bottom of the consumption chain are African countries that import bales of the used clothes, and even underwear, for sale in the thriving informal markets common on the continent, which imports 32% of the world's used clothes valued at US$1bn.

Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Uganda are amongst some of the big markets for used clothes. In the same countries, the garment and textile industries have either collapsed or are struggling with thousands of jobs lost.

With little success, governments have tried to ban or impose huge tariffs on the used clothes, but as often clothes are smuggled across borders, like in Zimbabwe.

Affiliates of global union IndustriAll in Nigeria, Uganda and Zimbabwe are against importing used clothes as it threatens the growth of the garment and textile sector, which suffered huge blows in the 1980s and 1990s with the adoption of the neoliberal International Monetary Fund/World Bank sponsored structural adjustment policies. They argue that the growth of the sector has potential to create jobs for hundreds of thousands of young women and other workers along the value chain. The unions also say cheap imports from China made locally produced clothes more expensive.

"We call upon governments to develop sustainable policies that promote the development of the garment and textile sector and the employment of young workers," says Paule France Ndessomin, IndustriAll regional secretary for sub-Saharan Africa. "International trade agreements should prioritise the interests of developing countries instead of promoting the dumping of used clothes on the continent."