The Problem with Ukay-Ukay

When Chris and I made our first trip to the market in Cagayan de Oro, it was a trip indeed.  So many sights, so much newness to take in that it remained a blur until the fourth or fifth trip, when the market seemed less like a cursed labyrinth with no escape and more like mildly methodical madness.   I’m sure Filipino wet markets are quite relaxed in comparison to the rest of the world.  Pinoys don’t shout about their wares; they might say hello to a new face, but it’s not like in East London, for example, where, as the market day comes to a close, one can hear the most authentic Cockney committing to rock-bottom prices on flowers, nectarines, or potatoes.  There is meat and fish hanging about, but in every market I’ve been to, it’s all kept in the same place, so that with a little effort I can avoid that part of the journey all together.  Not that I ever remember which entrance to the market marks the meat section:  Cogon is as big as a small city block, and surrounding the entirety of the market are little stalls built into its exterior selling pirated DVDs, cell phones and the like, brooms and plastic buckets of all sizes and shapes…even malongs and sandals (called chinelas here).  Around these stalls are more fruit vendors (or fruiterers, my Londoners [lame excuse to use that word, I know…but I love it]), as well as vendors of baked goods, used jewelry, mani, knives and sharpeners…on one corner there is usually a blind man playing old soul tunes on his guitar for money.

The market is like this living, breathing entity.  I have always loved markets – I always will.  Communities form within them.  The children of vendors become the vendors.  Mind you, it isn’t all sweetness and light.  I’ve heard that the vendors are extortionists when it comes to what they’re willing to pay the farmers…and of course, a farmer who’s made his or her way over a 3-hour or 3-day trip, possibly having had goods stolen along the way already, must return with something, and it can’t be the goods they came to sell in the first place.  Nobody has it easy in the market, but people make it work, and it is so often a place filled with laughter and inside jokes…and I’m sure romance and intrigue.  There are children who beg, and there are also children who steal, and some who just play.  I often wish that I could morph into a fly on the wall…the market is no place to sit and observe…to sit in the market is to be a sitting duck.  When I shop at Cogon I must keep moving, smiling, “Dili, salamat.  Tag pila? Maayong hapon!” moving, smiling, and away I go.

But returning to our first impressions…among the many shocking things we encountered was something known here as ukay-ukay (literally rummage-rummage…Pinoys do that repeat thing a lot.  See:  halo-halo).  Imagine:  an old store-front where the front of the store is literally ripped off and replaced with those rolling top-down security closures.  When the shop is open, there are tables spilling out onto the sidewalks – literally dozens sometimes – piled so high with clothes that some spill off the sides.  Some of these tables are specially constructed such that there are mini barriers to prevent clothes from spilling off.  There is no logic to where the clothes go – they are not separated by size, color, gender-appropriateness or type.  Only the shoes are siphoned out into rows and rows along the street.  From the shop truly horrible pop music (often remixes of already horrible songs) blares incessantly, so loud that we discreetly plug our ears as we pass by.  Our first impression?  What in the name of all that is holy is this place???  Why, it’s the ukay-ukay.

This is difficult for me, because it is not an easily defended argument from either side.  I ask you, reader, to truly consider everything I write here before making any hasty judgements.  Because – and granted, I could be very much mistaken – I really don’t think most people in Europe, Canada, or the U.S. know a thing about this.  I have purposefully waited to write about the ukay-ukay because I really want to present it in the most truthful and contextual way possible.  At first I thought it wasn’t really my place to write about it…so moral-bending is the sentiment with which I’m left when I ponder the whole situation.  But it’s just been bugging me for entirely too long now.

A disclaimer:  all of my information is coming via word-of-mouth.  This is truly hearsay that is simply stranger than fiction, so, as my sociology professor used to say, I just figure they couldn’t make this stuff up.  I’ve tried checking online, but I haven’t been able to find anything other than Pinoys showing off what they buy at the ukay-ukay on their blogs.  So if I’m 100% wrong, and you know, go on and shame me…I’ll take my just deserts and move on.

So here it is:

You know when you donate clothes?  You get those advertisements that say you can donate your clothes to poor people living in developing countries.  You could take your clothes to the Salvation Army, but these people will come by your house to pick them up, and anyway, isn’t it nicer to imagine your old clothes being worn by a very poor person, incapable of buying clothes for themselves, rather than some hippie kid with enough time to scour the racks of every charity shop in town to find “the look” they’re going for (yes – that is a portrait of moi as a young person)?  Apparently some of those clothes come here.  And end up on these tables.

For those of you struggling to find the scandal here – the profiteers here are making quite a significant sum of money for a more or less nil investment.  Worse still, they’re lying to people to get them to produce the product for them at no cost to them…100% profit.  Moving on with the bad stuff:  the poor people you imagine wearing these clothes?  They can’t afford to buy them.  A decent shirt from ukay-ukay runs about Php100 – a day’s salary for a domestic worker…certainly too much for someone destitute.  And there is definitely a market for clothes in this price range.  Used to be that people who couldn’t afford to shop in the malls would commission clothes to be made by local (and incredibly talented) seamstresses.  Of course, these would be clothes to last ages – not the cheap stuff we buy in the shops nowadays.  The only market left for a seamstress now is in fancy dresses.  And a woman only needs so many of those.

So what could the good news possibly be?  To give you some context, please leave the currency of your country out of your mind for a moment.  Consider this:  a domestic worker usually earns, as stated before, about Php100/day.  A fast food manager can earn about Php250/day.  My colleagues – college-educated development workers – earn about 400/day.  Nurses earn about 500/day.  So to go to the mall, as I did with a friend last week, and to buy two tops, as I did, which totaled roughly Php1200…that’s just a lot for anybody.  And they were cheap in comparison to the vast majority of what’s in a mall.  The Philippines, as much as any other country, has a teensy-weensy (but oh-so-powerful) upper class, and a ginormous population of very poor.  And the working classes aren’t doing so hot financially, either.  The clothes that come so cheap to the U.S. and Europe are still quite expensive if you’re living in the Philippines and earning pesos.  Ukay-ukay has made it possible for people who work very hard to have a few more pieces of clothes than they would otherwise.  But then so does Wal-mart.

So there you have it.  My slightly unprofessional expose on something I’m not sure I totally understand.  In some ways I think this is a plea – can somebody out there make this make sense to me?  Thing is, I get that there are decent people benefiting from the existence of ukay-ukay.  I just think the solution to those problems should be so much bigger, and this is less like putting a band-aid on a gaping wound, and more like hiding a pimple with a latex Ronald Reagan mask.

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7 thoughts on “The Problem with Ukay-Ukay

  1. Jan Miller says:

    WOW! What a GREAT post. Because I volunteer for a local Social Service agency and also belong to a club that raises money for different charities, you have given me much to think about. Thank you. Jan

  2. Victor Halsig says:

    Ann –
    No matter where you go or what the laws are, there are those who will take advantage of others. The trick to beat them is to provide alternatives so that people have choices and don’t have to put up with the crooks. That it happens still makes me very angry, though….

    • ann says:

      Choice, I’m afraid, is in short supply here.

      • Victor Halsig says:

        You got it Ann, and that’s why I get a little miffed when I hear US citizens complaining about the help we send people in other places. Most US citizens just DO NOT even come close to realizing how well off they are. We have choice and opportunity and all the good stuff. I guess it’s up to people like you to get that across to them. I’ve been trying for years and I don’t think they’re listening.

  3. Jasper Rickels says:

    Hello Ann, interesting view/observation, I am a US citizen working in Saudi Arabia. My wife is Philippine, we have a four year old daughter. We opened a Ukay2 store 2 years ago (very Small) store front $160 per month rent. The girls in the family love this business so well we have bought a lot and built us a store 4 times the size, it should be open by Nov/Dec.
    Our used clothes start at 70 pesos each and then as the days go by the price drops all the way to 10 pesos. We do buy some new ladies fashion products, purses, shoes, ladies accessories. We buy our bundles from where you mentioned and from Manila. Wouldn’t say we are getting rich, but it employees several family members and we buy 50 lb bags of rice.
    We try to provide a price range of products to our entire population in our town. Like many business ventures it takes hard work, dedication, and a lot of passion for this business. Yes we spend a lot of time selling on line, on our front porch and of course in our store. Like most businesses much time spent developing relationships and trying to give our customers what they want and like at an affordable price while making a reasonable profit.
    Thank you for your post, I really enjoyed reading your prospective!

    • Ann says:

      Hi Jasper, thanks so much for commenting, it’s been a very long time since I posted anything on this blog, so it came as a big (and pleasant) surprise.
      I certainly don’t mean to pass judgement. For me, the questionable-ness of it all, the moral murkiness, lies with those collecting clothes under the auspices that said donations will make their way to people otherwise incapable of paying for clothing. I want to be clear: I have seen children living in such abject poverty in the Philippines (as I’m sure you have as well) that they are quite literally naked, and not because their parents are hippies who believe naked time is good for the spirit. I have seen (again, as I’m sure you have as well), stark naked children sleeping on the streets of Manila, or hovering outside their family home in Kolambugan. Children of an age too old to run about naked, and this is not a question of cultural norms. It is simply a question of poverty. As I mentioned in the post (and mind you, looking back on it I cringe a bit at my younger self, there is always a sense of ingenuité in one’s earlier writing), 70 pesos per piece of clothing 10 years later makes for far more affordable clothing for working class folks than what’s on offer in the mall. But these clothes make their way to stores quite often because the people who donate them believe they are going to be handed directly to the most vulnerable, not sold for a profit.
      At any rate, the world is such a complicated place right now…this crisis of moral ambiguity I experienced 10 years ago seems so petty in the face of our current challenges. I wish you and your family the very best from Bangui.

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