Sri Lanka: a campaign for garment workers

By Dilshani Samaraweera

This week the garment industry launched a Rs 30 million public-private partnership to uplift the image of garment workers in the island. The local image building campaign, titled ‘Abhimani’ (pride), is aimed at elevating the social position of thousands of working women in the garment sector, from the marriage market to the job market.

“We owe the success of this industry to our 90% female workforce. The Abhimani campaign is dedicated to these workers,” said Ajith Dias, the Chairman of the Joint Apparel Association Forum, the private sector industry representative body, speaking at the launch of the image building campaign on Tuesday.

“We will start the media campaign on International Women’s Day because the industry is mostly made up of women. Then we will expand the campaign to target around 150 villages excluding the North and East, over the period of around six months,” said Sandya Salgado, CEO of Ogilvy Action, the agency entrusted with running the image building campaign.

Old misconceptions
Sri Lanka’s apparel industry is improving its image internationally as an ethical manufacturing destination. But back home, a negative image hangs around the industry like a persistent bad smell.

“This is because of some old misconceptions. A lot of people have realised the truth by now including international buyers. They know we have very good labour and working standards. That we don’t employ child labour and that we don’t have sweatshops here in Sri Lanka,” said Noel Priyatilake, Chairman of the Sri Lanka Apparel Exporters Association.

Despite over 20 years in business and increasing export earnings, at home, the garment industry continues to be seen as low-end, low-value employment. According to trade unions, the industry has around 30,000 vacancies it cannot fill. The factories say the Abhimani campaign will be used to erase misconceptions and encouraging more young people to join the sector.

Improving social standing
To start with, the Abhimani campaign will try to directly counter negative societal attitudes towards women working in the garment sector.

“People have a very low opinion of garment workers. We must change this attitude to make this an honourable employment and to make it attractive to young people,” said Deepal Nelson, President of the Sri Lanka Chamber of Garment Exporters.

Employers say much of the problem is due to ingrained attitudes towards women. “Some of these girls find themselves boyfriends. In our type of culture, this is seen in a bad way. There is no prostitution happening, but since they are unmarried and are having relationships with men, they are called all kinds of names and treated badly,” said Priyatilake.

“Another misconception is that (male) factory managers are preying on women workers. These ideas are not based on reality,” said Priyatilake.

But at one time, these perceptions were so bad ‘garment girls’ found it difficult to get married, because they were seen as ‘corrupted.’ The industry says such extreme prejudices are now diminishing with more women going out to work.

Telling the good side
To help change public attitudes towards the industry, garment factories are anxious to communicate improvements in the sector. The factories say the local apparel industry is no longer the low value, cut-and-sew operation it once was.

“The value addition to exports is over 50% from last year. There is a common perception that our value addition is only about 30% to 35%. We have left that era behind,” said Dias, the head of the JAAF.

The industry says workers are now provided with many career development opportunities and are no longer stuck in low paying, routine jobs.

“Individual companies as well as the JAAF, conduct many programmes to develop the skills of employees and to climb the career path. Many workers undergo training in technology, human resource and soft skills development,” said Dias.

On another sticky point, wages, the factories say garment workers are paid well over the minimum wage stipulated by law and that garment workers get many other benefits.

“The minimum wage in the industry is Rs 6,750 per month. But the average take home is around Rs 12,500,” said Dias.

“In Sri Lanka, the cost of maintaining a worker is nearly three times the cost in Bangladesh because of the cost of welfare measures and incentives,” said Channa Palansuriya, a board member of the Board of Investment (BOI) of Sri Lanka.

Trade unions and civil society groups however, maintain that garment worker incomes are inadequate compared to the cost of living in the country.

On working conditions, the BOI says garment factories in the free trade zones do not deserve a bad name as sweatshops.
“There are strict laws on the number of working hours and the buyers also audit the factories. So there is no room for mistreatment of workers,” said Palanasuriya.

Women workers and activists agree that working conditions have improved inside factories. But living conditions outside trade zones are still far from good. Workers complain of sexual harassment on the roads and public transport, cramped, unhealthy boarding houses and exploitative landlords.

However, despite these existing difficulties, garment factories say that no other industry in Sri Lanka is ready to replace the garment sector in terms of export earnings.

The government and the industry therefore, are hoping to use the Abhimani campaign to tell the good side of the garment industry to the public, to ensure public support for the sector. (The Sri Lanka Times on line)

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