Sri Lanka's economic crisis is taking a heavy toll on low-paid female garment workers sewing clothes for the West. Garment making is Sri Lanka's No. 2 foreign exchange earner, with about 300 factories making clothes 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 to another 700,000 indirectly.
Sri Lanka is facing its worst financial crisis since independence in 1948, with foreign exchange reserves shrinking 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 - power often dies for hours at a time - have shuttered the most energy-intensive industries, textiles among them, and disrupted shipments.
Some global brands have already turned to alternative markets, such as Bangladesh and India, to fill the gap.
"I have never seen anything like this in my 20-year career," said one factory owner, who employs 20 women, now compelled to find new jobs or else 20 families will be short of cash to make vests and slips, some of whom have been on his payroll for over a decade. He says he is leaving the clothing industry, hit by rolling power cuts, soaring costs for raw materials, shrinking orders and a labour shortfall: a fistful of problems for an island that depends on exports for income. "The game is over," he explained, whose small textile operation in Moronthuduwa lies close to Sri Lanka's main city of Colombo. I am compelled to close my factory."
Shutdowns, shortages and pay problems are playing out across the island, with the female backbone of the garment industry paying the highest price. Many rural, low-paid women have already lost their jobs or say they have taken on loans or extra shifts to make ends meet each month.
"One luxury brand garment piece [Victoria's Secret negligee] stitched in our factory is worth our monthly salary. When they earn millions of dollars off of our many hours of arduous work, we are paid little," said 22-year-old Charika Fernando. "The prices of vegetables, meat and fish have all gone up. In February, following trade unions' demands, we received a salary increase of 2,500 rupees. And just before the salary increase, my landlord raised the rent of my room to 15,000 rupees per month."
Plus her workload has ballooned, she said, which often means 12-hour days, six days a week.
"The targets have gone up. If we don't reach the target, we will have four hours of overtime. Our factory set a historic record for the highest monthly targets in March. Factory owners must have reaped the harvest," she said. "...We are not compensated for our sick days. We don't get vacations."
"We have to spend more than half of our wages on transportation to and from the workplace ... leaving almost nothing to support our family or maintain a roof over our heads," said Jasintha Nilminiwho works at an underwear factory. "The situation has only become worse."
Women make up about eight in every 10 workers in the sector and most come from rural areas in search of jobs to make clothes in the commercial capital's Katunayake Free Trade Zone (FTZ).
"If you care about women's rights, you should worry about how the fashion business runs," said Padmini Weerasooriya, who defends garment workers in Sri Lanka and said it was more difficult to unionise women. "They are repressed not just at home, but also at work, school, and in their families," said Weerasooriya, a trade unionist for more than 20 years. "We want everyone who works in the garment industry to be paid a fair wage."
Sri Lanka has ordered troops to shoot on sight after it granted its military and police emergency powers to arrest people without warrants in the wake of protests that left seven people dead and resulted in the resignation of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. Protesters are also demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the younger brother of Mahinda Rajapksa.