Sri Lanka's Crisis Broke The Women Who Help With Country's 50% Exports
Sri Lanka's garment factory workers were already working in deplorable conditions. The economic crisis forced many of them into sex work.
Katunayake, SRI LANKA- Every morning, Sandhya Malkanti has to walk past a bunch of leering men— shopkeepers, street vendors and tuktuk drivers— who make snide remarks and lewd gestures at her. By the time she gets to work, she has already been harassed multiple times. At work, it doesn't get better.
The 33-year-old has been working as a garment factory worker in Sri Lanka for the last seven years. Just like her co-workers, Sandhya finds it difficult even to take a bathroom break as not meeting her targets would mean less money in her pocket.
At a time when Sri Lanka is going through its worst economic crisis, of its own making, with fuel and food prices skyrocketing, missing targets is not an option for any of the 35,000 workers, most of them women, in factories that make apparels for Gap, Nike and Victoria's Secret.
Meanwhile, many of these workers have been forced to compensate for their low income and high expenditure with other jobs. Some had to start their own small businesses, many have been forced to do sex work.
The Work And Pay
Just outside of the airport in Sri Lanka, Colombo, is the vast Katunayake Free Trade Zone (FTZ) that was opened in 1978, where there are about 84 factories.
One in seven women in Sri Lanka work in these garment factories spread across the Northern and Western province of the country. Most of the women who work in the factories are between the ages of 18-25, living far away from their families.
"They come here because they are trying to rescue their family from debts, many of them find freedom away from home. But no one comes here to do sex work," said Ashila Dandeniya, founder of Stand Up Movement Lanka, an organisation that works for the FTZ workers' rights.
The trade union activist said that in the last five months there has been a 20-30% increase of the instances where garment workers have been forced into sex work.
For Nalini*, the sole breadwinner for her family of five who lives in Mullaitivu district, the Northern province of Sri Lanka, sex work has been the only choice at a time when her daily wage of less than 1,000 Sri Lankan rupees (Rs 220) became worthless because of the massive inflation. Half of that wage goes into paying for the boarding rent.
"I cannot go home and without a job I cannot survive," she said.
While there have been reports of more women turning to sex work to compensate for their loss in income, Ashila says that it is not an "overnight phenomenon". "It would happen earlier too. The economic crisis made the situation worse," she said adding that as the pandemic crisis ended, another crisis began.
The garment industry is Sri Lanka's second largest foreign exchange earner and the sector was just seeing a pandemic recovery with export earnings increasing by 22.1% to $514 million this January, compared with January 2021. However, for the workers there, the last two years have been a living nightmare.
For long, their working and living conditions have remained deplorable.
Sandhya, who works in one of the garment factories, is embroiled in a battle of low pay, family debts, everyday harassment — and all of this with barely any food on her plate. The crisis has meant that the factories have reduced workers' meals to just one a day. Too often, they are inedible.
"I have found worms and even geckos in my food since the crisis began," she said.
With the fuel, gas and electricity shortage, the machines couldn't be run for more than a few hours everyday and that meant workers were not able to meet their targets at the factories anymore. While the food prices went up, their salaries kept reducing.
"The pandemic shut many of their small businesses that they started to supplement their low income. There is very little choice now," Ashila said.
The textile industry contributes 7% to the country's overall gross domestic product, providing direct employment to 3,50,000 people and to another 7,00,000 indirectly. The industry represented 46.9% of the country's total exports (59% of industrial exports) at US$ 9,426 million in 2019. The demand for the apparels made in Sri Lanka come from the EU, US, Canada, The United Arab Emirates, Australia, and Japan, and it has only grown over the years.
But the women who fulfil the demands make a meagre salary and constantly face harassment in their factories and outside of them.
Ashila, a former garment worker, has been campaigning for years to increase the living wages of workers in the FTZ. The minimum wage in the country is set at 84,000 Sri Lankan rupees (Rs 18,610), but the workers in FTZ make about 23,000 Sri Lankan rupees (Rs 5,095) per month, including overtime and incentives.
A little calculation reveals that for an €8 t-shirt, a worker who made it will get paid 24 cents or even less.
The Coronavirus pandemic threw many workers out of jobs. Thousands lost their jobs when factories shut due to the pandemic and forced the workers to go back to their villages. "It was mostly the young workers who had worked for less than six months who faced the ax," Ashila said. And then came the economic crisis.
"When food prices started going up, factories started cutting food allowance from the workers' salary. Instead of one loaf of bread they now get a quarter of it. Fish buns disappeared from their plate and they got only half an egg," Ashila said, adding that meals got substantially worse.
"Even the daal and rice that they get is uncooked and inedible. Many of the workers are unable to find nutritious meal even once a day," said Gayani Gomes, Manager Projects at Women's Centre that works for the rights of garment workers.
The Rationing Of Economic Crisis
As Sri Lanka reeled from the pandemic woes, its worst financial crisis since Independence started emerging with foreign exchange reserves shrinking 70% to $2.36 billion in January, 2022. The dollar shortage left the country struggling to pay for imports of food, fuel and medicine. The shortage of essentials meant they are now unaffordable for many.
"There was no gas, no kerosene and not even a place for a woodfire stove. So we had to eat the only meal the factories provided us," said 28-year-old Niluka Lakhmani.
She said that their employers and the boarding owners started controlling their lives. They were asked to turn off the lights by 9 PM and that, for many of them, meant more harassment. "We felt unsafe at all times. Even going to the bathroom without lights can be dangerous at times," she said.
There was a control in their use of water. The soaps disappeared from the bathrooms. The paper cups kept next to the water filter were replaced with one just one cup - that everyone had to use.
"So we stopped drinking water," she said.
Shop owners who they would often buy supplies from at weekly credit now charge them 25 percent interest over their expenses.
"They have been pushed from all sides," Ashila said.
Meanwhile, hit by frequent power cuts and lack of fuel for generators, many of the factories were unable to meet the targets. One of Sri Lanka's garment exporters- Broadway Kids - have reportedly spent 400% more on fuel and generators compared with the same period last year. If the crisis goes on, they fear factories will have to halt production and many workers will lose their jobs.
With fewer operating hours, workers got paid one-third of their average earnings.
In April, as the economic crisis led to protests in Colombo, the Secretary at Ministry of Textiles in India, UP Singh told reporters that some countries who were earlier importing garments from Sri Lanka have started contacting India. "Some orders have already been given to companies in the Tirupur district of Tamil Nadu," he said.
"Brands have announced that if the economic and political crisis continue then they will withdraw from Sri Lanka and move to Bangladesh and India. The garment workers' jobs are on the line," said Gayani.
Facing threats of losing their jobs, the garment factory workers are trying to find alternate income sources. With very little education and the burden of debt, the choice of going back home is just not there.
The Violation Of Rights
While the trade union activists say that many garment workers have been forced into sex work with the economic crisis, the deplorable work conditions where the workers are constantly fighting sexual and mental harassment is unmissable.
The instances of harassment by the technicians inside the factory have become a daily routine for the workers. Only the worst ones get reported. "We have even stopped complaining now because nothing will change," said Rewati*, a 24-year-old garment factory worker.
"If a woman asks the technician to fix their sewing machine they will invariably make some lewd comments and do a half decent job. If we let them touch us, they will quickly fix the machine," the worker said.
The supervisors at the factories who keep a tab of the production targets and attendance often tell the workers that they can provide them with an "easy job"; they ask the workers to accompany them behind a closed door.
It's the same story across the many factories in Sri Lanka's SEZ.
"The female workers tolerate it because they don't have many options. The men use that power to exploit them," Ashila said, adding that they are already vulnerable because they live far away from their families.
"Men stand outside our boardings with their pants' zip pulled down. They wait there to harass us. We have to face this almost everyday," said Sandhya, a garment factory worker.
Ashila explained that the women are seen as "easy targets" because almost all of them live far away from their families.
A few days ago, a fishermen threw a woman's underwear at Niluka and told her that he bought them for her. "I felt so helpless. I couldn't put in the work that I needed to at the factory," she remembered.
The first international standard that aims to put an end to violence and harassment in workplaces, the C-190 convention by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has reached the cabinet of ministers in Sri Lanka but has not yet been ratified in the Parliament. In March this year, Labour Minister Nimal Siripala De Silva had said that Sri Lanka wants to be the first country to ratify the C-190 Convention and amend its labour laws. However, he also said, "Amending existing laws is not an easy task and we are not prepared to amend the laws at the whims of certain quarters".
Gayani from Women's Centre said that the cabinet has approved the C-190 convention but it has not yet been gratified in the Parliament.
BOOM reached out to both the textile and labour ministry for a comment on this, but we haven't received a response yet.
Months before the economic crisis started showing its impact, during the first wave of the pandemic, the now ousted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had ordered garment factories to remain open. Meanwhile, trade unions and public health inspectors at the factories alleged that employers were under-testing and under-reporting cases to maintain production levels.
In October 2020, one of the garment factories located in the Gampha district became the centre of the biggest outbreaks of Coronavirus in Sri Lanka.
Over 1,000 workers at the factory of Brandix - one of Sri Lanka's largest apparel companies- tested positive. Many of the factory workers said that their health conditions were not taken seriously and they continued to work despite being sick. They would lose money if they took leave.
The garment factory was accused of violating Covid-19 guidelines putting many of the workers' lives at risk.
Following the outbreak, trade unions filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka alleging that soldiers "rounded up" 98 workers from various factories in the middle of the night and arbitrarily detained them in an unsanitary quarantine facility.
The army, meanwhile, accused the complainants of pursuing "hidden plans," and said the military should not be "insulted or downgraded."
Many other garment factories too violated health guidelines and told the workers they would lose pay and benefits if they did not report for work, despite safety fears related to the spread of Covid-19, Human Rights Watch reported.
And despite all the troubles, Sri Lanka's s earnings from textiles and garment exports increased by 28 percent year-on-year to $2.487 billion during the first six months of 2021. However, the Clean Cloth Campaign (CCC) 'Still, underpaid report' estimated wage gap for Sri Lanka's garment workers from March 2020 to April 2021 stood at 61.763 billion (US$313.5 million).
The workers didn't even get the government Covid subsidy of 5,000 Sri Lankan rupees (Rs 1,097) despite meeting the prerequisites, as they were not registered voters in areas of their current residence.
"They did not get their bonuses and their salaries saw a huge drop during those months," said Gayani from Women's Centre.
On May 20, 2021, a court in Galle detained a garment factory manager from the Koggala FTZ on charges under the Quarantine and Prevention of Diseases Act, for allegedly concealing information and failing to follow instructions from public health officials following an outbreak in the factory.
The prosecution was unusual.
"Unfair labour practices are so common in these garment factories that no one ever takes it seriously," said Ashila. "In the last few years, not a single ruling has been made in support of the workers. Justice is always in favor of the entrepreneurs," she said.
Back in 2001, Ashila had joined an apparel manufacturing company to check the quality of garments when she had to lift the financial burden of her family after father went missing during the civil war. She faced harassment in it and joined another one.
When she raised the issue of insufficient workers' wages, she was fired from her job. So she filed a case against the factory and eventually won it.
The former garment factory worker started her organisation 'Stand Up Movement' in 2008 to protect and promote the rights of workers in the FTZ. "We don't go to the police to complain when we face harassment, they don't take us seriously," said Sandhya. "We go to Ashila," she added.
Do you always want to share the authentic news with your friends?