• Tuesday, December 1, 2015
  • A program of IPS Inter Press Service supported by the Dutch MDG3 Fund

    SRI LANKA: Garment Industry Woos Women Workers

    By Feizal Samath
    COLOMBO, Feb 10 (IPS) Sri Lanka’s garment industry has launched a
    multi-million rupee campaign to
    bring in female workers shunning the country’s most profitable
    sector for better
    paying jobs.

    Executives at garment firms believe the industry is merely experiencing a
    image problem, but union officials say women are staying away because they
    get little respect and income from working long hours in what were once
    known as "sweatshops".

    "There is an image issue and we want to correct it and show that this
    is a
    respected sector and workers are treated well," says Tuly Cooray,
    general of the Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF), an umbrella group
    represents dozens of garment industrialists.

    Cooray told IPS the apparel sector’s bad image has created a dearth
    of trained
    employees. At a Free Trade Zone at Katunayake near the country’s
    international airport, there are about 15,000 job vacancies in garment

    Garments are Sri Lanka’s biggest export earner, posting 3.5 billion
    dollars in
    revenue in 2010. This is expected to jump to 5 billion dollars by 2016,
    according to government projections. But the sector needs women workers if
    it is to meet its targets.

    JAAF chairman A. Sukumaran, who also manages a factory in one of the
    zones, said industrial growth is hampered by shortage of labour.

    "We are turning away orders as we don’t have enough
    workers," he said in a
    telephone interview with IPS. A crisis over wages in Bangladesh in the
    few months has seen western buyers turning to Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, rising
    labour costs in China, the world’s largest producer of garments, is
    also seeing
    a shift in orders to countries like Sri Lanka where costs are lower.

    Under a 55-million rupee (490,000 dollar), 10-month campaign launched last
    week, the industry not only hopes to improve the image of the female
    garment worker but also stay attractive in a competitive labour market.

    "With the post-war economic boom expected, income per capita is
    to rise to 4,000 dollars in 2016 from 2,200 dollars now. There would then
    a demand for labour and we need to make sure the garment and textile
    is still attractive," Cooray said.

    Over the years, Sri Lanka’s garment factories have turned into
    factories from the sweatshops they once were, but female garment workers
    are still occasionally called "juki girls" – juki being a brand
    of sewing

    They are also subject to catcalls from young men living in and around free
    trade zones where most of the factories are located.

    For women to gain respect, their salaries need to improve while their
    conditions need to be upgraded, says Anton Marcus, convener of the Free
    Trade Zones Workers Union (FTZWU).

    "Workers are struggling on the wage they get and often work seven
    days a
    week to make ends meet. There are no savings," Marcus told IPS.
    "It’s a hard

    Sriya Ahangamage from the Women’s Centre, which fights for better
    and other benefits for garment workers, told IPS young women from the
    villages continue to join the garment sector only because there are no
    jobs available.

    "Some leave the garment sector and seek jobs as domestics in the
    East," she said.

    Workers’ groups have been campaigning for what they call a
    ‘living’ wage.
    The current basic salary is around 9,000 rupees (about 80 dollars) per
    and with long hours of overtime and working seven days a week, a worker
    could make up to 12,000-13,000 rupees, or about 115 dollars.

    According to Lalitha Ranjani Kumari of the National Workers Union also
    representing garment workers, the basic ‘living’ wage is
    around 20,000
    rupees per month.

    FTZWU’s Marcus said the living wage has been calculated based on the
    cost of
    living and calorie intake. "Once we did a health check and found
    women suffering from malnourishment because they were having frugal
    meals without any meat," he said.

    Living conditions, another reason why women are reluctant to join the
    garment industry workforce, are appalling. Girls share small, cheap dingy
    rooms without proper ventilation a few kilometers away from the zones, and
    pay for their own accommodation.

    JAAF’s Cooray agrees that the conditions may be not be the best
    available and
    said the industry and government are working on the prospects of building
    decent worker hostels. "This is the discussion stage," he said.

    Most women who migrate from the village to the city are breadwinners.
    Marcus cites government data that a family needs 39,000 rupees (about 350
    dollars) a month for household expenses. "You can see the disparity
    in the
    wage that a garment worker gets."

    Both Marcus and the other two women activists reject claims by Cooray that
    "quality" worker in a garment factory can make up to 20,000

    "That is nonsense," retorts Ahangamage from the Women’s
    Centre. "Even to
    get 12,000-13,000 rupees, one has to work all seven days of the

    Under JAAF’s awareness programme, with support from the Ministry of
    Industry and Commerce, the campaign will be held in all nine provinces of
    country to showcase the apparel industry’s contributions to the
    regions and
    create awareness about opportunities and potential.

    "It will also profile the contribution this sector has made to the
    country and
    how workers have been a part of this effort," notes JAAF chairman

    Asked to respond to complaints of low wages, Sukumaran said:
    "It’s all based
    on supply and demand. Now it’s the supply (labour) that determines
    business. Companies are willing to pay more for good workers. It is

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