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SRI LANKA: Garment Industry Woos Women Workers

Feizal Samath

COLOMBO, Feb 10 2011 (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.

Workers at a garment factory outside Colombo.  Credit: J. Weerasekera

Workers at a garment factory outside Colombo. Credit: J. Weerasekera

Executives at garment firms believe the industry is merely experiencing a bad 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, secretary general of the Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF), an umbrella group that 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 only international airport, there are about 15,000 job vacancies in garment factories.

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 past 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 projected to rise to 4,000 dollars in 2016 from 2,200 dollars now. There would then be a demand for labour and we need to make sure the garment and textile sector is still attractive,” Cooray said.

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

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 living 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 life.”

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

“Some leave the garment sector and seek jobs as domestics in the Middle 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 month 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 many 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 a “quality” worker in a garment factory can make up to 20,000 rupees.

“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 week.”

Under JAAF’s awareness programme, with support from the Ministry of Industry and Commerce, the campaign will be held in all nine provinces of the 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 Sukumaran.

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 our business. Companies are willing to pay more for good workers. It is strictly business.”

 
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