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ECONOMY-SRI LANKA: Conditions Worsen For Women Workers

Feizal Samath

BIYAGAMA, Mar 23 2009 (IPS) - Ramani, 26, sits inside her small, dimly-lit boarding house room, cutting vegetables, in this industrial town outside Colombo. She plans to return to her rural village in May to get married.

Women textile workers pay a third of their salaries as rent for impossibly cramped boarding.  Credit: M.A. Pushpa/IPS

Women textile workers pay a third of their salaries as rent for impossibly cramped boarding. Credit: M.A. Pushpa/IPS

"Most girls generally work for five years in garment factories and return to their villages to get married,’’ she says.

Thousands of young women, employed in garment factories spread across Sri Lanka, and concentrated in Free Trade Zones (FTZ) in towns like Biyagama, now face an uncertain future due to lowered demand for their products.

With garment exports, Sri Lanka’s biggest foreign exchange earner, coming under severe strain due to a pause in duty-free concessions from Europe, and the global recession, the women face unemployment and dare not ask for better facilities.

Ajith Dias, chairman of the Joint Apparels Association Forum (JAAF), an umbrella group representing manufacturers and buyers, says that export orders for the April-June quarter are worrying. "Generally buyers are not deciding too much in advance now in placing orders,’’ he told IPS.

The crisis is bad enough for factories to move towards limiting operations to five days a week – with an extra hour per day to make up for the Saturday half-day’s work – and cutting down on cost of power and other usage.

The Employers’ Federation of Ceylon, an umbrella group representing employers, has made the five-day week proposal to the government and is awaiting a response.

Since July 2008, close to 40,000 workers have lost their jobs in an industry where women form the majority.

Last month, Sinotex, a 25-year-old company in an FTZ, closed its factory, saying it was rapidly losing orders from the U.S. and needed to give compensation to its 2,000-odd workers.

Union leaders, however, reject claims by industrialists that the closure is mainly due to shrinking orders from the West. "They give all kinds of excuses but the real situation is that these places are closed due to bad management or problems with unions," says Anton Marcus, secretary to the FTZ and General Services Union.

Marcus said the global crisis has not affected the local apparel industry. "The orders are still there and the industry looks healthy," he said, adding that some garment factory owners are using the recession as an excuse to shut down and then reopen as new units with fewer and cheaper hands.

Reduced export orders or tussles between unions and factory officials are remote problems for workers like Ramani who are forced to live in small, dingy rooms shared with a co-worker. Trying to make ends meet on Rs 10,000 (100 US dollars) a month is struggle enough.

A third of her pay goes towards boarding charges while another third is sent home. She makes do with the rest for food and personal expenses.

Ramani uses a gas stove (the room also doubles up as a kitchen) and has a television, fan and a mobile phone as luxuries.

The broken-down toilets, set far away in an overgrown compound, are comfortless and some do not even have doors.

Most of the workers who spoke with IPS declined to give their real names for fear of drawing the wrath of the authorities and their employers.

Living frugally, the women eat a daily diet of rice and vegetables with no meat or eggs. "We eat meat maybe once a month because we can’t afford it," noted Kumari, 21. She spoke of sexual harassment as a serious problem for young girls going to or returning from work.

"Three-wheeler taxi drivers stop on the road and want to give us a ride or motorbike riders will pass by pulling our hair," she said. The women avoid wearing jewellery or going home alone after the night shift. "We go in groups. We take precautions not to attract undue attention."

"We can’t get these wages in the village. So we are forced to come to the city for work," she said.

There are dozens of factories, mostly making garments, in the Biyagama FTZ and many of the town folk in and around the zone have opened boarding houses – with poor facilities – for the migrant workers who come from remote villages.

In most cases, the women collect water from a well in the garden for their daily needs while the boarding house owner has water on tap. Most of these rooms are windowless.

Some boarding houses take on male garment workers, and this could either be of some benefit or create problems.

"Sometimes, having a male around provides us some protection from outsiders. On the other hand, there could be problems of a sexual nature. Privacy, since we use the same toilets, is an issue," said Ramani.

The garment sector has shrunk to about 200 factories from 800 factories about six years back when the industry was at its peak during the Multi-Fibre Agreement era when developing countries like Sri Lanka benefited from textile quotas.

The number of workers has shrunk to about 250,000 from more than 350,000 a decade ago while manufacturers are now providing multi-skill training to workers to handle more than one job at a time – though at the same wage level.

Union leader Marcus says the girls start make about Rs 10,000 per month with overtime and other additional payments. "There is definitely a need to pay more as these workers are exploited.

''Foreign buyers talk about codes of conduct, good workplace practices and corporate social responsibility but are not willing to pay more for the goods," he said.

The garment sector is expected to shrink further in 2009 with many factories downsizing or consolidating with other units, gearing towards surviving in a tough economic environment.

"These workers don’t have decent living conditions. The government’s Board of Investment recently offered loans to boarding house owners to improve conditions of workers’ quarters. But some owners used up the money to improve their own houses," Marcus said.

The government has also offered free land to garment manufacturers to build decent accommodation for workers, an offer that has been under discussion for a long time.

Garment manufacturers say they have improved conditions at work and provide benefits like free meals and medical help while work areas, lunch rooms and toilets are generally comfortable and clean.

But, according to Marcus, the government is not looking at what is happening outside the FTZs, while offering investors cheap labour and tax incentives. "The politicians are also useless. Since these girls are from different regions, they are not a vote base for the local politicians," he said.

The U.S. and Europe are Sri Lanka’s biggest buyers. The industry is now struggling with the shock of non-extension of duty free concessions to garments and other products from European buyers under the system of Generalised Trade Preferences.

JAAF’s Dias says that costs of production have risen sharply in recent years for many reasons while the prices buyers pay have not gone up reciprocally. "If the buyers pay us better we can pass on the benefits. We just cannot survive in a difficult business."

Some workers like Ranjani were under-aged when they first started working. "I came to work at Biyagama when I was 16 and didn’t get a letter of appointment… maybe because I was too young.’’

Sitting inside her tiny room, Ranjani, now 20, says she hopes to get married one day and return to her village. ‘’When that can happen I cannot say.’’

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