Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Economy & Trade, Headlines, Human Rights, Labour

TRADE-SRI LANKA: Tea, Garments Win Buyer Approval for Labour Practices

Feizal Samath

COLOMBO, Aug 1 2007 (IPS) - Sri Lanka is regularly hauled up by western donors for its dismal human rights record, but its biggest exports, tea and garments, are gaining global recognition for ensuring workers’ rights and welfare.

Products like “ethical teas” and “ethical bras” (lingerie), which recognise labour rights in the workplace, have gained significant consumer loyalty in U.S. and European markets.

Ashroff Omar, chairman of the Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF), says that when foreign buyers visit Sri Lankan garment factories, they are surprised by the standards. The United States is Sri Lanka’s largest customer, buying 58 percent of total export production, followed by the European Union, which takes around 37 percent.

Here garment factories, once nothing more than sweatshops like in Hong Kong and China with dismal rest rooms and unsanitary toilets, have transformed, with some even installing automatic cash machines and providing accommodations for workers.

Earlier this year, the garment industry launched a multi-million-rupee image-building programme to position the country globally as an ethical clothing producer.

The collective industry label and image building campaign, called “Made in Sri Lanka: Garments without Guilt”, is aimed at differentiating Sri Lanka from mounting competition, particularly China and India, by carving out an “ethical” niche.

Equally, welfare for plantation workers has undergone a radical change. Tea is the second largest commodity export. The once marginalised labourers, who lived in tiny, shanty-type accommodation called “line rooms”, now reside in modern apartment blocks.

And, for the first time since their forebears were brought from south India by British colonialists to build Sri Lanka’s tea and rubber estates, the post office has started delivering letters to their doorsteps. Workers have been allotted separate house numbers after nearly two centuries.

Trade unions in both sectors grudgingly concede that welfare conditions have improved. “I agree there have been improvements but setting up unions is still a problem in factories,” Anton Marcus, a unionist in the garment industry, said.

He spoke a few days after a strike over wages at a suburban factory was called off following negotiations with the factory management – unheard of until a few years back.

P. Muthulingam, chairman of the Institute of Social Development, a non-governmental organisation supporting workers’ welfare in the plantations, agrees there has been some improvement in working conditions.

But not for all workers, he hastens to add. Some 30 percent of the near 500,000 plantation workers still live in dilapidated housing.

The Kelani Valley Plantations Ltd (KVPL), one of the top tea companies and part of the giant Hayleys Group in Sri Lanka, has vowed to adhere to the United Nations principles of good governance at the launch of its ethical tea brand, the first in the world.

The company, which promotes social responsibility, was recently invited by the UN Global Compact (GC) that was launched by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, to hold a press conference at the UN headquarters in New York about its work.

Suthesh Balasubramanian, KVPL general manager in charge of business development, told IPS that the UN principles deal with human rights, labour, preserving the environment, fighting corruption, among others.

“We plan to send a report to the GC every year on the progress towards achieving these objectives,” he said.

The company produces the “purest tea in the world”, he says, because it offers a home for every worker, in addition to other facilities and benefits.

It may not be the case in all plantations in Sri Lanka but the situation is improving, with estates desperate to attract youth seeking more dignified jobs, and the need to retain the staff.

Sri Lanka’s MAS Holdings, a world class lingerie manufacturer that supplies to major brands such as Victoria’s Secret, Gap, Marks & Spencer and Nik, is stepping up ethical standards in programmes empowering women, spending three to four percent of costs on employee and philanthropic programmes.

Its “Women Go Beyond” programme, for example, is aimed at educating and empowering its over 90 percent female workforce, who are provided transport to work, free meals, medical care and on-site banking at all MAS plants in nine countries. It also funds hospitals, schools and scholarships in the villages where its plants are located.

“We believe strongly that if the people we work with have their basic needs taken care of, they are freer to concentrate on the work at hand and bring out their best,” Mahesh Amalean, the company chairman, said in a company statement.

The ethical branding strategy would help meet consumer expectations, says Kumar Mirchandani of JAAF. “What we get is an intangible premium. We can’t go to buyers and say pay more for our products because we are ethical and we don’t use children, but we can make buyers feel more comfortable buying from us,” he explains.

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