Thrift clothes: A thriving trade despite restrictions in Syria
Enab Baladi – Wafa Abido
Amid the deteriorating economic and living conditions dominating the areas under the regime’s control, second-hand clothes (known locally as bale) have become an alternative to new garments for Syrian citizens, leading to the opening of markets and shops in various regions including the capital, Damascus.
Despite the government’s crackdown on it, the trade of thrift clothes has become even more prevalent than before, with merchants smuggling these goods with the support of influential figures in the army.
Second-hand clothing now forms an indispensable outlet for many families and individuals, as it offers affordable, high-quality goods compared to local products and aligns with the financial abilities of consumers on the one hand, and generates considerable returns for merchants and sellers on the other.
Ayham, a used clothing shop owner in Damascus, clarified to Enab Baladi that second-hand clothing is smuggled into Syria through illegal means, entering from Lebanon to Syria through unofficial border crossings, including Wadi Khaled in northern Lebanon to the countryside of Homs or from the Lebanese city of Hermel, or through official borders with Lebanon but smuggled with “bribes.”
Syrian officers with economic interests linked to the merchants importing used clothes oversee these operations and routes, according to the merchant.
“The profit is doubled but you need someone to have your back,” said Ayham, indicating the significant economic benefits this trade achieves when supported.
The weight of a “bundle” (the term used by traders for a set of clothes) ranges between 60 and 65 kilograms.
And the price reaches about one million and 800,000 Syrian pounds (about 125 US dollars), for the first-grade type, and the number of pieces varies between 240 and 270 pieces, consisting of women’s sweaters, coats, and children’s clothes, among others.
The trader clarified that the wholesale price per piece can reach 6000 pounds, noting that they are not sold for less than 30,000 pounds, with the price varying depending on the area of sale, whether in the city center or popular neighborhoods.
The entry of used clothing to the areas under the regime’s control is not limited to these routes alone. Qusay, a thrift clothes trader in Qamishli, mentioned that used clothing coming from Europe is collected and sent to Turkey and then enters Iraq illegally (smuggling). Getting the goods to areas under the regime’s control requires a guarantor who can facilitate entry into the area to transfer the merchandise, which requires support, allowing passage through the regime’s checkpoints.
Alternatively, if the trader is from the area (northeast Syria), they take the merchandise to the regime-held areas, which does not exempt them from needing support or a “connection” to pass through the same checkpoints, as any issues could subject them to legal questioning and customs issues, he said.
In July 2018, the regime’s Ministry of Internal Trade issued a decision that prohibited the sale of used clothes, considering its import banned according to official regulations, and mentioned that it would take strict measures against those involved in selling these clothes as they negatively affect the “national industry.”
The used is better than the new
Used clothing shops are distributed across different Syrian provinces, turning them into a competitor for new clothes shops regarding popularity, amid challenging circumstances.
“The piece I get from thrift clothes has no equal in the entire market and lasts for years for the same price,” described Manar (32 years old) residing in Damascus, her experience with used clothes, noting that the market includes various goods in terms of price and quality.
The young woman frequents the used clothes market occasionally and rarely buys new clothes. She can buy a sweater from thrift clothes shops for a price ranging between 50 and 100 thousand pounds, but of higher quality compared to the locally made new clothes which are of poor quality and expensively priced.
Moreover, thrift clothing markets also contain pieces from international brands, and not necessarily all the clothes are second-hand.
Yusra (55 years old), residing in the Damascus countryside, visits the market periodically to seek pieces that fit her income and her children’s sizes.
The woman explained to Enab Baladi that despite the increasing prices even in used clothing markets, the continuous search can yield pieces at prices that fit her circumstances, noticeably cheaper than the new clothing market, which she had not visited for a long time.
She pointed out that she managed to obtain a coat for her daughter at the end of last winter for 55,000 pounds while finding one of similar quality in new clothing stores would cost nearly 300,000 pounds. She noted that her children are interested in some trendy clothes found in the new clothes market and not available in second-hand clothing shops but the price differences prevent her from buying.
Clothing prices in Syria are continuously rising, mismatched with the monthly income and daily life needs of the citizens, in addition to the surging prices of other products and goods.
According to Kassioun Index for Living Costs, issued at the end of 2023, the average living costs for a Syrian family of five exceeds 12 million Syrian pounds. After the latest salary increase in areas under the regime control, the minimum wage for public sector workers reached about 186,000 Syrian pounds.
Most Syrians depend on more than one source of income in an effort to balance earnings and expenses, while many families give up essentials in their lives to lower their spending rates.
Riham, residing in Damascus, told Enab Baladi that she purchases goods from a merchant in Damascus and offers them for sale at her home without adding significant amounts of profit, but still, she earns a good financial return.
Riham explained that she started her small project with approximately five million Syrian pounds, for the price of “two bundles”, and she also bought a steam iron to enhance the appearance of the pieces and display them attractively to facilitate selling at a better price.
Riham fears customs campaigns against thrift clothes, which could cause a “big loss” for her if they confiscate it.
Prices face almost daily repeated hikes that affect basic and food items, doubling the citizens’ lack of purchasing power.
Economic researcher Abdul Azim al-Mugharbel believes that the regime’s government is trying to combat the trade of used clothing that enters through illegal methods, owing to its impact on local markets, especially to protect the remnants of local industries that are deteriorating.
Second-hand clothing also attracts individuals with lower incomes more than local clothing because of its lower price, in addition to regulating attempts to evade taxes and customs, which, in this case, are for the regime’s checkpoints, according to the researcher.
He added that the reason for the low prices of used clothing compared to new clothing, despite the “royalties” imposed for their entry, is due to high production and manufacturing costs and the unavailability of some essential raw materials.
Clothing merchants in different regime-controlled areas suffer from rising energy costs and production expenses, contributing to increased prices of their products, in addition to their obligations to pay worker wages, taxes, and other burdens, as reported by the government newspaper “Tishreen” in April 2023.
According to the 2022 International Labour Organization (ILO) ranking, Syria ranked 21st out of 117 countries in the Working Poverty index based on the international poverty line, which is 1.90 dollars a day.
Syria’s labor productivity was ranked 159th out of 189 countries, indicating weak productivity.
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