Photo courtesy of Huffpost

It is one year since Sri Lanka went into lockdown. At a recent press briefing by women members of Sri Lanka Chamber of Garment Exporters, a member of the Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF) extolled the virtues of the garment industry. I was bemused by this parading of a handful of women garment workers in the midst of a pandemic to get them to praise the sector.

A legal complaint has been lodged by garment sector unions, Stand Up and Commercial and Industrial Workers’ Union. There was an article on how COVID-19 was exposing the plight of factory workers and another on the debt trap in the fashion world. As someone who has been researching the Sri Lankan garment industry for over a decade, how could I reconcile these narrative threads?

There was some hope. For instance, MAS Holdings and some other garment producers were rising to the unprecedented times and shifting gears to PPE production, attracting large orders. The industry struck an agreement with the largest union representing workers, including garment workers, committing itself to paying half the basic wage and not to retrench.

All was almost well, or so it seemed. In conversations with my academic peers working on the sector for the South Asian region, the Sri Lankan apparel sector seemed to be doing best. The situation was dire in South India and as desperate in Bangladesh.

When the global pandemic was declared, I was in France, writing my forthcoming book, “Garments without Guilt? Global Labour Justice and Ethical Codes in Sri Lankan Apparels”. When I returned to Sri Lanka, I called my colleagues in the apparel sector to get a sense of the situation. They reported challenging circumstances. Unable to directly speak with workers, I spoke to some leading labour rights leaders who echoed other concerns on the difficulties that workers experienced. Yet there appeared to be a silver lining compared to our neighbouring countries at least, or so, it seemed.

I asked one labour rights organization to gather some written testimonies. The brief was simple: to outline their experiences with their employing factories during the global pandemic (starting from about mid-March to now). The workers had written their testimonies just before the COVID-19 cluster in early October 2020 broke out at the Brandix factory in Minuwangoda. The eventual community cluster, linked possibly to the virus of corruption, given close relations between the military and the apparel sector, meant that a collective call by a group of academics was deftly ignored or simply unknown to the authorities and JAFF. After a series of contrived statements by both Brandix and Sri Lanka Apparel Exporters’ Association, there was silence; the story was slipped under the carpet.

The claims made at the press briefing do not echo with the 19 worker testimonies I had. Moreover, Asia Floor Wage has consistently stated that Sri Lankan garment sector workers do not get paid a living wage; my visits to their homes do not confirm an upliftment to their lifestyles. Indeed, during the lockdown, workers faced numerous difficulties that are best captured using their own words (names have been changed):

“During the time of the curfew, we got a Rs. 5,000 contribution.  I have worked for 14 years and now my basic wage is Rs. 3,450. When I worked, my basic wage was Rs. 8,200,” said Nila from Biyagama FTZ.

“We get paid half of our basic wage. However, they cut off EPF before they pay us.  We get to our hand about Rs. 9,000. But our boarding rentals have remained the same. There is no reduction. They come on time to collect their boarding fees. Not only that, they take Rs. 4,000 for the room and Rs. 1,500 for electricity and so Rs. 5,500 is spent on living quarters,” said Mishara from Katunayake FTZ.

“The Rs. 5,000 the government was supposed to give us, we did not get,” said Niyanthini from Katunayake FTZ.

“When I heard about COVID-19, I stayed at home using up my own holidays. It is our neighbours who informed us that the factory had closed down because of curfew,” said Shikanthi from Vavuniya.

These extracts from worker testimonies from different parts of Sri Lanka show the troubles they faced with the onset of the pandemic, caught between poverty wages paid by the industry, a government that did not see fit to include workers in providing supplies, avaricious boarding owners and some workers taking their entitled holiday leave due to fears around the virus before factory closures began. None of these voices suggest that lifestyle upliftment has been possible when the lack of a living wage has pushed women workers under the poverty line; in other words, fast ingraining themselves as the working poor.

If I have commended apparel industrialists for having vision and responding to collective labour struggles, hence dampening the sharp edges of uneven global capitalism, then at this contemporary moment that imagination is faltering and becoming defensive. It is negating the militarized and autocratic political setting, where increasingly the very institutions that enable highly educated workers and, from the viewpoint of the garment sector, high-quality production, are under threat.

The clarion call of Garments Without Guilt rests on Sri Lanka’s institutional and legislative frameworks, free education, health and protective labour legislation. These are responses to the role of historical and contemporary labour struggles that continuously shape the evolution of capitalism, as uneven as it is. The high value added and ethical road that Sri Lankan apparels looks as if it is on thin ice.  If the pressure to be competitive prevails over ethicality and if JAAF is in vehement denial mode, it papers over the debilitation often associated with militarized states but also undermines the ethos of corporate social responsibility. Since, despite a pandemic, it then reaffirms that the corporate entity triumphs over social responsibility, ethicality and the nation’s well-being since it neglects the fact that workers, irrespective of ethnicity, ability or sexuality, make up the nation too.

The author is Professor of Human Geography, University of Göteborg, Sweden and Honorary Fellow at the Centre for South Asian Studies, University of Edinburgh, Scotland.