Post-Covid crisis for Sri Lankan women who dress the West

The pandemic has been pretty tough. Today, Sri Lanka faces an economic crisis of its own that is taking a heavy toll on the poorly paid garment workers who sew clothes for the wealthiest women in the West.

“I’ve never seen anything like it in my 20-year career,” said a factory owner, who employs 20 women to make vests and briefs, some of whom have been on his payroll for more than a year. decade.

Today Anthony – alias – says he is quitting the rag business, hit by power cuts, soaring raw material costs, dwindling orders and a labor shortage : a handful of problems for an island that depends on exports for its income.

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“The game is over,” said Anthony, whose small textile business in Moronthuduwa is near Sri Lanka’s main city, Colombo. “I have to close my factory.”

And with that, 20 local women will be forced to find new jobs or else 20 families will run out of money.

“I can only imagine the desperation their families will feel,” Anthony said. “But is it my fault?

“That’s the state of things across the country.”

Shutdowns, shortages, pay issues and impending strikes are unfolding across the island, with the female backbone of the garment industry paying the highest price.

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Many rural, low-wage women have already lost their jobs or say they have taken out loans or extra shifts to make ends meet each month – all for the price of a Victoria’s Secret negligee.

“A piece of luxury branded clothing sewn in our factory is worth our monthly salary. When they make millions of dollars from our many hours of hard work, we get paid little,” said 22-year-old Charika Fernando.

Victoria’s Secret did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the wages and conditions of workers at its suppliers in Sri Lanka.

Garment manufacturing is Sri Lanka’s second largest foreign exchange earner, with around 300 factories making garments for dozens of well-known global brands.

The industry contributes 6% to the country’s overall gross domestic product (GDP), providing direct employment to 350,000 people and indirectly to another 700,000.

Hit hard like so many other industries by the pandemic, the apparel sector appeared to be on its way back earlier this year as demand picked up after the lockdown and coronavirus infections dwindled.

Figures show a post-pandemic recovery was well underway, with garment makers’ export earnings rising 22% to $514 million in January, compared to January 2021.

That was then.

Now, a domestic economic crisis fueled by a shortage of foreign currency grips the island just as it seeks to stamp out the deadliest epidemic in decades, a crisis that had already wiped out years of growing prosperity.

Dollar shortage

Sri Lanka is facing its worst financial crisis since independence in 1948, with foreign exchange reserves shrinking by 70% to $2.36 billion in January.

The dollar shortage has left the island struggling to pay for imports, including food, medicine and fuel.

Unprecedented blackouts – electricity is often cut for hours at a time – have shut down the most energy-intensive industries, including textiles, and disrupted shipments to the West.

The government says help is on the way, but stores can’t wait and some big brands have already turned to alternative markets, such as Bangladesh and India, to fill the void.

Unions blame underlying issues that had remained hidden for years and have now surfaced, underscoring the strong power imbalance between Western brands and their Asian workers.

“We have to spend more than half of our salary on transportation to and from work…leaving next to nothing to support our families or maintain a roof over our heads,” Jasintha said. Nilmini, who works in an underwear factory.

“The situation has only gotten worse.”

Women most affected

Women make up around eight out of ten workers in the sector and most come from rural areas looking for work – women like Fernando’s mother, Rani, who moved 120 km (75 miles) from her village to making clothes in the commercial capital Katunayake Free Trade zone (FTZ).

“My mother worked as a tailor and ironer,” Fernando said. “From my mother’s experience, I understood how demanding this task was on her body.”

Nonetheless, she took the same path, choosing garment labor as her best way out of poverty.

“In March, I made 40,000 rupees ($116) but everything got more expensive,” said Fernando, a machine operator who makes clothes for major brands including Victoria’s Secret.

“Prices of vegetables, meat and fish all went up. In February, following union demands, we received a salary increase of Rs 2,500. And just before the salary increase, my landlord went up the rent for my room at 15,000 rupees per month.”

Plus, her workload has skyrocketed, she says, which often means 12-hour days, six days a week.

“The targets have increased. If we don’t reach the target, we will have four overtime hours. Our factory set an all-time high for the highest monthly targets in March. Factory owners must have reaped the harvest” , she said.

“There were times when I would burst into tears of despair. We don’t get compensated for our sick days. We don’t have vacations.”

Overall problem

From Central America to South Asia, low wages, long working hours and risky conditions endured by many workers have tarnished the glitzy image of the fashion industry.

The pandemic has exacerbated their plight.

Thousands of garment workers faced reprisals and worked in harsh conditions as Covid-19 protocols were breached and outbreaks swept through factories, according to a report by a global rights group. workers this month.

And globally, a series of high-profile textile factory disasters, reports of abuse in corporate supply chains and heightened environmental awareness have caused some shoppers to shun cheap, disposable fashion and its high hidden costs.

“If you care about women’s rights, you should care about the way the fashion industry works,” said Padmini Weerasooriya, who defends garment workers in Sri Lanka and said he was more difficult to organize women.

“They are repressed not only at home, but also at work, at school and in their families,” said Weerasooriya, a trade unionist for more than 20 years.

“We want everyone who works in the apparel industry to be paid a fair wage.”

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