“Any piece for 500 riyal only.”
That’s what you often hear on sidewalks carrying piles of second-hand clothes in central Sanaa.
People with limited income are no longer the only ones going through such piles of jackets, blouses, shirts and pants. Alongside them, you can find people who appear more well-to-do whom you wouldn’t expect to see thrifting.
Ali al-Senbani, an employee at a private company is dressed elegantly, but he says he often stops by these used clothes markets to see if he can find something he likes.
“As you can see, I have a brand-name shirt and jeans that I bought for no more than 1,500 riyal,” he said. That’s the equivalent of $2.5.
Used clothes vendors are spreading across Sanaa, providing affordable options for Yemeni families, especially amid the harsh economic conditions resulting from the war, the freezing of public sector wages and high unemployment.
“I try to get good and clean winter clothes for children – jackets and pajamas – to give to the poor and the needy,” says Um Mohammad, a housewife, as she inspects clothes at a booth in Sanaa.
How it works
Women and children in Sanaa’s most populous areas are the most likely customers.
Mojahed al-Thamari, a store owner in the Shomailah neighborhood south of Sanaa, said second-hand clothes are sold all year long to different demographics.
“This is good and clean stuff, an alternative to the pricey malls and large shopping centers,” al-Thamari told the Yemeni American News.
Items at these booths across Sanaa’s working class neighborhoods range from 200 to 1,500 riyal. ($1 is around 530 riyal in Sanaa).
One of the vendors, 15-year-old Raddad Abdullah, said the merchandise comes in large compressed bags called “bala.”
“We take it out and distribute and price each piece according to its cleanliness and quality,” he said.
The merchandise is acquired from international traders through different markets in the world. It varies in quality – with the top tier, known as “generous”, worn once or twice only before it’s sold.
“The shop and stall owners pool their money and buy from certified importers, then we sell it,” al-Thamari explained.
“We know nothing about the state or quality of the stuff that we get. Some come in good shape and some come ripped up and scruffy. We iron the clothes and steam them before we put them on display.”
The second-hand clothes business is not new or entirely the product of the war. The trade existed for decades in Yemen, but the demand for used clothes increased during the conflict. According to the ministry of industry and trade, used clothes imports doubled from $2 million to $4 million per year since the war started.
The industry has open-air auctions known in Arabic as “haraj”.
Abed Mansur, a used clothes business and manager of the Al-Hasaba auction, north of Sanaa, said most of what he imports is new, obtained from stores, malls or factories that have gone out of business, adding that the merchandise arrives clean and sterilized.
The authorities in the areas under the control of the Houthi group, known as “Ansar Allah”, in north and central Yemen, imposed regulations on the second-hand clothes importers before granting licenses to allow their product into the country.
These measures by the ministry of industry and trade have irked many people in the business, including Mansur.
“Most of these procedures are arbitrary. Our shipments get seized at customs under the pretext that the licensing papers have not arrived,” he said, adding that the clothes start emitting bad odors in the heat.
Another merchant also voiced frustration to the Yemeni American News.
“The second-hand clothes system is global. The goods arrive clean, sterile and health-inspected with permits from the country of origin. There are also accredited and recognized laundries in Dubai and Saudi Arabia,” he said.
Fuad Howaidy, assistant undersecretary for foreign trade at the ministry of industry and trade, said the authorities reversed a decision to ban importing used clothes after objections from local merchants and international financial institutions.
“Still, we imposed fines of up to 30 percent on violations in imports to stress the need of meeting the conditions of health and safety backed by appropriate certificates,” Howaidy told the Yemeni American News.
He added that the ministry makes unannounced inspections at warehouses and takes samples to ensure that they are clean and fit to wear. “We also prohibit merchants from importing undergarments, socks and shoes because they are susceptible to carrying bacteria,” he said.
But some merchants insist that the rules are excessive. “Our expenses are increasing, which is pushing us to raise retail prices,” one vendor said.
So now a black market is emerging where some merchants are smuggling their imports to go around the regulations and fees.
Howaidy said the authorities are imposing fines on stories without business records to crackdown on smuggling. “We are requiring them to show us the location of their warehouses,” he said.
Besides second-hand clothes, merchandise from closing stores and old collections are also making their way to Yemen from international markets.
But there is a health risk to this booming trade, warns Dr. Maher Al-Muriesh.
“These clothes could carry bacteria that are highly resistant to antibiotics, so if the clothes are not treated to get rid of germs, they can cause skin diseases and emit toxic fumes if burned,” Al-Muriesh said.