Photo courtesy of Remake

Sri Lanka’s garment workers, mostly women, make an important contribution to the country’s economy. In 2019, apparel exports amounted to $5.2 billion, nearly 40% of all exports. The industry provides direct employment to 300,000 people and indirect employment to 600,000. About 350 garment factories are operating in different parts of the country, while there are about 16 textile and fabric manufacturing units.

However, after the Covid-19 pandemic, exports fell sharply as lockdowns hit production and order cancellations were high. The pandemic has exposed the darker side of the industry, with workers complaining of being subjected to inhumane conditions inside and outside factories, calling into question the country’s hard-won reputation as a ethical source of clothing and doubts it lives up to the slogan, Guilt-Free Clothing.

In his book, Guilt-Free Clothes? Global Labor Justice and Ethical Codes in Sri Lankan Clothing, Kanchana N. Ruwanpura, Professor of Human Geography at the University of Gothenburg, explores two main topics – what institutional factors allowed Sri Lankan clothing to escape negative publicity in contrast to neighboring South Asian countries and how are ethical trade, codes that underpin formative global governance regimes for global supply chains, factors in the process and where are the voices workers ?

Conducted over a 10-year period, Dr. Ruwanpura delved deep into the lives of garment workers, spending time watching them work, visiting their homes and attending their celebrations. She answers questions from Groundviews about the results of her research.

Where has the Sri Lankan garment industry succeeded and where has it failed?

Sri Lankan clothing does great things in many ways. Its ability to do so also relies on the fact that there is a strong legislative base and high social and human development indices in Sri Lanka. It is important not to lose sight of these fundamental facets. The industry itself has also made great strides; its attention to the built environment in many ways is unparalleled in South Asia and major Sri Lankan apparel players have grown from local capital to global capital. Thus, Sri Lankan clothing is a successful business when it comes to capital accumulation. Along with the success of the capital, taking a time view, as I try to do in my book, I also wanted to focus on the workers and their role in the achievements of Sri Lankan clothing. I do this both by looking at workers’ collective action (different workers’ struggles and their mobilizations at different times) as well as how workers make their mark in the factory; worker agency is continually important, as most managers are likely to recognize it, even if not all recognize it. So the success of Sri Lankan clothing is in every sense a capital-management-labour story, sometimes in conjunction and at other times in opposition. This dynamic means that Sri Lankan clothing, from a work perspective, is doing very well in several areas. Working conditions in factories are generally safe and hygienic, child labor is rare, regular jobs are provided and often workers choose to work, although this is mitigated by the fact that work in the formal sector is limited . Yet there are sore spots: the lack of a living wage and the inability to associate freely and bargain collectively (unionize). These two facets are the underside of Sri Lankan clothing. Low living wages also have an effect on duration. Workers try to get a bigger paycheck by working over time, being more productive, and trying to show up at work regularly. This means that during production cycles and peak season, working hours can be long and production shops can be tense and stressful for both workers and production shop supervisors and managers. That’s the downside. I would say that these weaknesses are fundamentally linked to the absence of a living wage. Here, Sri Lankan clothing can do better. Sri Lankan clothing needs to look at the distribution of wages between business owners, managers and workers and reconsider how workers should be paid a living wage, not just through overtime and work incentives. This will certainly also contribute to alleviating the growing and relative income inequality in Sri Lanka.

Are workers more aware of their rights now?

I had access to workers by being based in two factories and through these initial groups by contacting others. If I have to trace patterns of worker awareness, I would say that their awareness of rights is varied. Often I have found that it is the older workers, those who have been in the industry for over a decade or more, who know their rights. Often men of all ages are also aware of their rights, as are highly skilled workers. Young workers and those who viewed their work in factories as temporary work were the least aware of or were often preoccupied with their youth. However, when economic realities dictated that working in the factory was not a short term, then their awareness of their rights tended to deepen. They rightly set out from an awareness of their economic poverty, prompting them to become familiar with their rights.

Are they more willing to report sexual harassment and discrimination because of their gender despite stigma?

Harassment and discrimination in factories are not always and necessarily solely of a sexual nature. It’s gendered but not always a case of male supervisors and floor managers harassing and discriminating against females. To give an example, in a factory where I was based, there were many more women who were at the helm as line supervisors or production shop managers and often the men who worked also had to deal with harsh treatments. What I often found was that workers – men, women and their line workers – were quick to stand their ground if they were harassed or witnessed harassment, whether verbally abused or yelled at. There is also the ethnic dimension that we often forget. Sri Lankan clothing no longer depends solely on majority labor. From around 2009, or just before, Sri Lankan garments moved to the north and east of the country and the free zone in the south of the country began to attract workers from the north, east and planting areas. While there has been a serious effort to integrate through work, a decade later, differences based on language and ethnicity continue to matter. Since I was based in factories well outside the free trade zone, I could not claim to have witnessed sexual harassment as commonly alleged by the media in factories. None of the workers shared evidence establishing consistent sexual harassment. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist; just that I don’t have the evidence to argue that it does.

Do employers have a responsibility to look beyond the factory and improve the housing, transportation and health of their workers?

On issues beyond the factory, I think here we also need to focus on the state. Public health, public transport and even perhaps even social housing should be given serious consideration by the state and the successive government. Workers who live next to free trade zones or factories outside factories are simply not regulated and so sometimes workers share boarding rooms in the multiple or on a rotating basis. For boarding school owners, their income – to my knowledge – is not taxed, there are no requirements on the size of the rooms or the number of occupants of these rooms; it is essentially an unregulated underground economy. It is also a loss of tax revenue for the government. Stricter regulation and a greater supply of social housing, public transport and public health are essential; it will also lead to better working conditions outside the factory. The responsibility for this failure then lies with the recurring governments of the past four decades.

At the start of Covid-19 there were many reports of poor working conditions for garment workers. Were they justified?

Covid-19 was a time when the flaws of Sri Lankan clothing came into full view. To begin with, the poor housing conditions of the workers, the confinement in shared rooms in private pensions came to light. Densely populated housing, as is the case next to free zones or factories, overcrowded and unregulated boarding schools are all fertile ground for the spread of Covid-19 and it has spread rapidly among working-class communities. These poor living conditions for workers are, however, also linked to the absence of a decent wage. If workers are not earning a living wage, they will cut corners on the housing they seek, the type of housing and so on. It was the squalor of the workers’ housing stock that mattered when Covid-19 was introduced into the factory. The Covid-19 epidemic in factories is a reminder that creating exceptional factory sites alone is not enough to protect the health of workers.

Can the Sri Lankan garment industry rightly adopt the slogan Garments Without Guilt (GWG) or is it just a clever marketing ploy?

I think arguing that GWG and as an ethical sourcing destination only as a clever marketing ploy would be unjustifiable. Compared to other South Asian countries, Sri Lankan clothing is doing very well, but it’s also labor laws and educated workers have helped keep the bar high. Thus, in certain areas, there is certainly a real aspiration to ethics and efforts to upgrade production sites. And of course, the voice of workers and their collective strength – past and present – ​​is also an important bulwark.

How has writing this book changed you as a person and what lessons have you learned from your research?

Tenacity. I learned this from my workers; their determination to be treated with justice and dignity. On reflection, it wasn’t so much that my research or writing the book changed me as a person, but rather that it made me realize that in many ways we are bound by how we navigate the struggles we encounter. And humanity and generosity are also all around us, if we seek to tap into them.

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