Protecting the dignity of our garment industry worker
By Bernadine Rodrigo
Our nation Sri Lanka is one that reflects the utmost level of democracy, equality, freedom and indeed, dignity. It is the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka and proclaims the righteous treatment of all its citizens. While on paper this may be true, when it comes to the true mindset of society – an aspect of a nation seemingly different from its Constitution – our country can be called a conservative or old-fashioned society.
While our culture displays some of the world’s best qualities such as selfless hospitality towards guests and passionate care towards our neighbours’ wellbeing, it also displays a few remnants of the ancient, unjust system of classism based on gender, age, or occupation.
With democracy supposedly instilled within the people through constant amendments and changes in the functioning of governing authorities, it can be expected that in a modern, liberal world of the 21st Century, the Sri Lankan people would have shed the stigmas of the past and stopped discriminating. However, unfortunately, one walk out into the streets would prove otherwise.
Perhaps as a result of the keen interest Sri Lankan society has in the day-to-day activities of others, a majority of individuals constantly try to gather more information in hopes of knowing everything there is to know about a person.
It is not unheard of that employees in certain fields, mostly those belonging to the sector of wage-earners, are treated by the public as though they are proletarian, a term used by Marxist theorists to refer to the wage earners.
Wikipedia defines the proletariat as “the class of wage-earners in an economic society whose only possession of significant material value is their labour power (how much work they can do)”.
Looking at people in this manner and considering them as insignificant, frankly, is known as being judgmental, and puts the onlooker in a position of having somewhat of a superiority complex.
However negative this may be, unfortunately the prevailing norms in Sri Lanka do not permit those who are the fuel of the nation to receive the respect they truly deserve.
In order to put an end to this and fight for their respect, JAAF – Joint Apparel Association Forum of Sri Lanka – organised a conference with the launch of the “Matai Mage Ratatai” campaign hosted and presented exclusively by individuals from the apparel industry of Sri Lanka. The reason behind this cause being pioneered by those of the apparel industry is that currently, it is the leading contributor to Sri Lanka’s economy. It makes up 59% of the country’s exports, which, overwhelmingly, is more than half of it and through this, contributes 45% of the total export turnover, with the numbers amounting to $ 11.3 billion as revealed by JAAF.
All of this is only possible because of the tireless work of the seamstresses and other factory-level workers, mostly women, who total more than 350,000 in number.
Shamefully, the biggest breadwinners of the nation are commonly considered nothing more than sewing machines, having been given the name “Juki girls”, which originated from the popular brand of machines they used back in the day when factories were first established.
Hope is not lost for these carriers of the country, however, as they themselves believe and expressed at the conference on 26 September, that the industry has taken it upon themselves to alter the old perceptions and empower its precious workers. They stated that regardless of what they do within the premises of the factory, it is a well enough opportunity for unemployed women to earn an income, gain financial independence, and as time goes on, develop skills, knowledge, and also their career.
Views of co-ordinators in the field
It seems at this point that those within the field have fully understood the value of its workers and are truly grateful for their service. BerNatali Sourcing (Pvt.) Ltd., a company that is only eight years old, CEO Ruwan Rodrigo said that the apparel industry cannot be looked at from a mechanical perspective, as it relies on human labour to achieve perfect and precise stitches on garments which can only be done with a trained human hand.
He said that he and other members of the apparel industry in Sri Lanka are fully aware of it, and hence, they offer a great deal of incentives such as insurance, food, means of transport, etc. to their employees; perks that are not even heard of in other countries’ apparel industries such as Bangladesh or India.
MAS Holdings Ltd. Director – Manufacturing Ranjana Kulatunge said that more than $ 5 billion worth of foreign income enters the country through the hands of these ladies. Similar to others in the field, he mentioned that apart from those in foreign employment, this hardworking and talented local workforce plays the most important part in maintaining a stable economy on the international stage.
Additionally, speaking at the event, JAAF Chairman, Deputy Chairman, and Co-founder and MAS Holdings CEO Sharad Amalean called the talented workers the foundation, pillars, and assets of the industry, which have developed over decades. He referred to the seamstresses as nothing less than “our team members”.
Presently, there only seems to be negative stigma surrounding the apparel sector by the public. Within the walls of the industry, there seems to be a great deal of respect and support. However, it still stings the aspiring young workers and the women who have already reached the pinnacle of success by climbing up the corporate ladder, when they hear terms such as “Juki Girl” or “factory worker”.
The problem, it seems, is not with the workplace but rather with the onlookers outside the workplace, who have passed their own judgments on the job.
A member of the public who wished to remain anonymous shared her experience of having to tell her friends that she was hired as an auditor at Brandix Lanka Ltd. “They all laughed at me,” she said. “They told me I was going to be a factory worker and work like an uneducated villager despite me being CIMA-qualified and not even being hired in a factory.”
Likewise, the carriers of the nation’s economy have to face all kinds of indignity every day of their lives, not in the workplace as one might assume, but from the very house to which they provide.
A similar yet different problem
Although the issues in the apparel industry can be seen rather clearly due to the fact that most work in the field is done in close proximity to the cities so people are able to come to their own conclusions based on what they see, there are other fields in which discrimination and exploitation, even within the industry, takes place.
For instance, as mentioned in the WSWS (World Socialist Web Site), part of the global Socialist Equality Party, an organisation that adheres to the teachings of Leon Trotsky, the workers in tea plantations are going through an extremely difficult time when it comes to being respected and getting paid what they deserve. An article on the WSWS was revealed by Nanda Wikramasinghe, a local member of the party who fights to save the dignity of the working class.
The article touched on a recent event involving the workers and their protest asking for better wages. They asked for a 100% increase as they were only getting paid Rs. 500 per day. Further, it states that wage slips from 17 workers at nine Rainforest Alliance(an international environmentalist organisation)-certified tea estates showed daily earnings widely being cut by more than three-quarters for debt repayments, salary advances, and a laundry list of fees. Workers at Fairtrade-certified estates were subject to 74% wage deductions on average, while those at Rainforest Alliance-backed estates saw 65% of their income taken away.
This sheds light on a different kind of issue than the one found in the apparel industry. There, the workers are respected in their workplaces, while here they are simply being punished for being at work.
Regardless of the two different aspects of the problem, one common theme continues to stand out – the lack of respect towards one’s fellow people.
Be it through a revolution of the working class as expected by the Socialist Equality Party or through appreciation and recognition by the authorities of the capitalist sector, there is only one final task to be fulfilled to end the lack of support to the hardworking workforce of Sri Lanka.
A culture of respect rather than a culture of support must be cultivated within the society of Sri Lanka, starting from the smallest child to the most senior citizen.
Photos Eshan Dasanayaka