RA 4653 is an old law passed in 1966 whose intent is to safeguard public health from the possible spread of diseases from imported used clothing and rags. It is also premised on protecting the “dignity of the nation” from the idea of patronizing someone else’s hand-me-downs.

The law penalizes violators with fines between two hundred pesos to P20,000 or imprisonment of two to five years. Its provision also mandates that confiscated items be burned in the presence of certain agencies concerned.

RA 4653 preceded the birth of today’s so-called ukay-ukay industry, an enterprise economy that if properly taxed could yield a significant income stream for the government. Proposed legislation in Congress estimates that the ukay-ukay business if legalized can earn at least P700 million annually in new taxes for the government.

It is ironic that the failure of the government to strictly implement RA 4653 from the outset not only ushered in the proliferation of ukay-ukay shops but also its popularization and even integration into the local culture.

Today, ukay-ukay is not even an underground economy as it should be because of the law. The government has allowed it to become a mainstream enterprise that is even partly captured in the formal economy by way of local taxes imposed on retail stores. It certainly provides jobs and makes a significant contribution in meeting certain needs for affordable clothing in the time of economic hardship exacerbated by the pandemic.

Used clothes importation remains illegal in light of RA 4653. And while the Bureau of Customs conducts occasionally raids, it is evident that its enforcement system is a flawed and corrupted process partly responsible for the thriving industry.

This week’s raid by the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group on a major supplier of ukay-ukay goods and the reported confiscation of around P2 million worth of banned items shook the foundations of a thriving enterprise rooted in these illegal items.

However, the absence of coordination among agencies and policymakers involved – including City Hall, the trade industry department, the BOC, and even the provincial government creates new problems when only one particular agency tries to do something.

The government needs to step up and put its act together to effect a meaningful policy and enforcement environment to regulate the ukay-ukay economy without hurting those who have already become dependent on it during these hard times of the pandemic.