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Sri Lankan garment industry struggles to attract women workers

REUTERS/Andrew Caballero-Reynolds

As the Sri Lanka garment industry launches a multi million rupee campaign to attract female workers, employees within the industry continue to report exploitative wages, forced overtime and suppression of union rights.

Sri Lanka’s garment industry is the nation’s biggest export earner, reporting $3.5 billion USD profits for 2010. The Sri Lankan government has projected this profit to increase by up to $5 billion USD in the next 5 years. However, reaching this target means that the sector must attract thousands of additional workers. According to the Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF) chairman, Mr Sukumaran, the industry has already turned away orders because it doesn’t have enough workers.

In IPS news reports, the JAAF and garment firm executives claim that the industry is struggling to bring in more women workers merely because it suffers from a “bad image problem”. To combat this, they are preparing to spend 55 million rupee ($492,061.24 AUD) to “improve the image of the female garment worker”.

According to Sriya Ahangamage from advocacy organisation The Women’s Centre, it is the reality of the garment industry, rather than its image, that is the problem. Sriya believes that young women join the garment sector because there are so few other jobs available.

Sriya reports that workers often have to work 7 days a week for wages as little as 10,000-12,000 a month (about AUD $90-$107), whereas government data indicates that a family need at least 39,000 rupee (about $350 AUD) a month to provide for basic household expenses. Anton Marcus, convener of the Free Trade Zones Workers Union, points to recent studies which demonstrate that many women garment workers can’t afford decent meals and suffer from malnutrition.

According to Sriya, for all these reasons it is not uncommon for women to leave the garment sector and seek jobs as domestic workers in the Middle East.

Not surprisingly, Sri Lankan garment workers have been at forefront of the Asia wide campaign for decent wages. Sri Lankan workers and their unions recently organised a tribunal in Sri Lanka’s premier Free Trade Zone area, Katunayake, under the heading: “Minimum Living Wage and decent working conditions as fundamental Human Rights”. The tribunal involved a panel of international judges, aimed at redressing the lack of decent labour conditions in the garment industry in Sri Lanka.

Hopefully some of their findings might assist the Sri Lankan garment industry in making changes that really will attract more women to the sector.

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Main Image Photo: Asia News