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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2963

Garment Industry in Sri Lanka at Cross Roads: Manufacturers concerned of high cost while the workers demand a "Living wage"

By Quintus Perera - Asian Tribune

Colombo, 09 October, ( Initially the Free Trade Zone or better known then as the Investment Promotional Zones were basically set up to solve two major problems in Sri Lanka viz to solve unemployment and to earn more and more foreign exchange to boost the economy.

As in all other investments, the first priority of the investor has been to ensure their share of return on the investment. Though every government enjoyed the benefits of FTZ and some even went on to criticize the whole programme, no one tried the shortcomings of it rectified such as lack of boarding facilities for these girls, the utter disgusting living conditions in their present boarding houses, their safety and sexual harassment and the worst among them all the utterly inadequate remuneration they receive.

Almost the entirety of the FTZs confined to garment industry and females were employed for the job. Long after, Sri Lanka started FTZ’s, several other countries too started these programmes and with their coming to the market, Sri Lanka was given tough competition.

When there were so many labour laws in the country in place, the FTZs were started without allowing the workers to enjoy the recourse of those labour laws and more stringently they were not allowed to organize into trade unions.

Earlier there were a large number of organizations, most of them non-governmental organizations pretended to be working for the upliftment of these garment girls and even banded themselves as trade unions. But most of them, when they found the going was tough, abandoned the cause of working for the cause of the ‘garment girls’ and went for various other activities.

There is another kind of organizations which them say they are working for the workers, but their work would be confined to attending seminars and just maintaining their centres.

Yet there is another kind, which really works for the cause of these garment girls, despite the many odds they face.

A number of such trade unions, Labour NGOs and Observer Organizations affiliated to the apparel industry is formed to fight for the rights of women workers in the industry.

The group has launched a first full- scale discussion on Sector Specific Living Wage for Sri Lankan Apparel Industry Workers at the BMICH recently.

At the question time after the discussion Dhammika Dias, Quality Supervisor for Wal Mart Global Procurement (Buyer’s representative expressing the view point of the investors said the country’s garment industry has been confronted with the emerging markets and giants like India and China and there is heavy competition for survival with number of garment factories in Sri Lanka closing down and thousands of workers have been rendered unemployed.

Therefore, he said, before discussing living wages or anything else we have to be mindful of keeping the cost of production as low as possible and the garments to be of highest quality, at least to maintain the current quantity of garment sales.

He said whatever happens here the buying prices would not change while the blunt of the increasing cost of production due to the ever increasing high cost of fuel and electricity and other costs have to be born by the producer and those who cannot balance the income and expenditure, close up and go. He said, though the employers like to pay the workers little more, they are precluded due to various cost factors. What is important is the increase in productivity.

After the quota system for garment industry was withdrawn in 2005, though the major portion of the industry handled by large companies managed to survive, many small factories faced the difficulty of getting buyers for their products and some of them in fact had to close down. On top of this calamity the garment industry had to face the toughest test of survival competing with giants in the trade like India and China as well as the emerging markets like Cambodia, Vietnam etc which offered cheap labour, cheaper than Sri Lanka.

With all these constraints, the industry in Sri Lanka has been accused of neglecting the working conditions and remunerations of the workers.

Anton Marcus, General Secretary, Free Trade Zone and General Services Employees Union who acted as the moderator of the discussion said that productivity does not necessarily mean increase in production, but is a matter of how much one invests and how much he gets in return.

He said there is an unimaginable difference of a workers salary and a managers salary as some managers of garment factories are drawing more than Rs 100,000 per month, while the workers who toil hard day in and day out gets only a mere Rs 5,000 per month. He said “You have to think of these diabolical disparities when you consider productivity”.

He said the problem lies whether the industry is willing to get the participation of the workers and if the workers could be participated in the decision making process, the productivity factor could be tackled, as the worker would feel ownership and a sense of belonging. He said the workers would then contribute immensely towards the progress of their workplace.

The discussion emanated from an elaborate research paper compiled by R P I R Prasanna and B Gowthaman on behalf of ALaRM.

ALaRM has been concerned of the threat of factory closures and anticipated job losses in the industry and the vulnerability of apparel industry workers, under the pretext of increased competition in the global market and the need for cost cutting.

The possibility of reduction in wages, benefits and bad working conditions and the predicted situation meant that there will be enormous pressure to reduce the workers benefits and erode the workers rights.

The Research paper presented for discussion centred on: fair compensation for job losses due to MFA phase out; living wages to bring to the National agenda and into the dialogue and bargaining with employers and government the concept of ‘Living Wage’ – a social wage that recognizes hidden costs of women workers and sufficient to fulfil basic needs from an eight hour work; better Living Conditions to ensure a dignified healthy, secure living and working environment for the women workers and unfettered Freedom of Association and to create an environment which affirms the concept of freedom of association as a basic legal right of the workers.

After the long discussion and listening to all the parties, it was agreed to take into consideration the various matters emphasized such as productivity, maintenance of low cost of production etc.

All the participants agreed that the research paper was well prepared and the initiation of the discussion is a welcome sign for the garment industry at large.

- Asian Tribune -

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