Social entrepreneur inspires Sri Lanka’s garment workers to “Stand Up” for rights

by Mary-Rose Abraham on Jan 19, 2017

Shirone Kaushalya makes leather jackets. But she rarely sees the finished product.

The 30-year-old woman uses a hammer to pound on the ridges and bumps of raw leather until it is smooth enough for stitching. Then she hands the flattened material to the next station in production and grabs another piece of leather – up to 180 during her shift. She works at a garment factory near the international airport in Negombo, Sri Lanka, about an hour north of the capital city of Colombo.

To flatten 180 leather pieces by day's end, Shirone finds it difficult -- like many of her co-workers -- even to take a bathroom break. Three years ago, she left her hometown about 12 miles away to work six days a week at the factory. Because of her long hours and shared accommodation in a boardinghouse, she left behind her young son.

Nishadi Gunasekera, 35, is a machine operator at the same factory. When her husband's income was not enough to support the family, she joined the garment industry five years ago. Her management does not allow workers to socialize. Recently, she and another woman were smiling and laughing with each other. Nishadi says her supervisor gave her a warning letter that if she did this again, her annual bonus would be cut.

Today is Sunday: their one day off.

Shirone and Nishadi join seven other workers from various garment factories at a sparsely furnished house-turned-office. The road outside is busy and most are late for the 9:30 a.m meeting. Each worker finds a seat in the circle casually arranged around a large desk.

“It's a mental relief to be here," Shirone says. “We work with a lot of pressure and it's very monotonous. When we come here, we get to talk and there is a lot of mental relaxation and satisfaction from everyone being together."

This is a monthly meeting of Stand Up Movement Lanka, an organization created for garment workers by Sri Lankan social entrepreneur Ashila Niroshine Mapalagama, 36. Stand Up educates workers about their rights, provides vocational training and has set up a social security system for its members. Founded in 2007, it is not a union but a network to empower workers through a relationship-driven, bottom-up approach.

For her work, Ashila was elected an Ashoka Fellow in 2014 and named as the first Fellow for “Fabric of Change," a global initiative of Ashoka and C&A Foundation for a fair and sustainable apparel industry.

The Women Who Make an Economic Powerhouse Run

“Women have never received a sufficient living wage here in Sri Lanka," Ashila says. “Their social, economic and cultural rights are in a lower condition. They have to work overtime. They sometimes have to sacrifice their lunch breaks, tea breaks, washroom breaks. They have to work really, really hard to get a sufficient income to cover the basics."

Sri Lanka's garment industry is a powerhouse for the country's economy, comprising 45 percent of total merchandise exports, valued at $4.5 billion in 2015. Global brands, including Nike, Marks & Spencer and Victoria's Secret, depend on the country's approximately 300,000 garment workers. The World Bank found that a garment worker in Sri Lanka earns an average of 55 cents per hour. According to Ashila, workers average a take-home salary of about $100 per month.

Women make up 71 percent of the industry. Most are migrants from rural areas, leaving behind families and children to work in the Free Trade Zones (FTZ) where factories are located.

If they face an emergency, banks are unlikely to lend and they have no one to turn to. Stand Up provides a financial safety net. How does it work? Members of the network pay into the system monthly. They can borrow -- interest-free -- up to LKR 25,000 (US $167). In the case of a death in their family, they are given a donation of LKR 15,000 (US $100) to help pay for funeral expenses.

So far this year, Stand Up loaned funds to 58 members and donated money for funeral expenses to nine members. Since 2008, 103 members have received this type of donation.

Ashila knows the apparel industry well. Though a very good student, she had to forego a college education to support her family after her father's death. She worked for five years in various garment factories. She was active in labour unions and NGOs, but she felt their programs did not match the real needs of the workers. After she left her last factory, she expanded her knowledge of workers' rights with extensive reading and four years at a human rights organization. Stand Up draws on this and her first hand experience as a garment worker for its unique approach.

“If we want to conduct an awareness program, we will not gather the workers to a hall and go about it a very formal way," Ashila says. “We will conduct a torch light parade and build awareness. When we wanted to ask for more salaries, it was difficult for us to directly confront the management because workers were afraid. So we organized a pahan puja (lamplighting ritual). And if we wanted to build relationships with workers, we'd go to a boardinghouse, get everyone together and watch a documentary [on workers' rights]."

Incentives to Stay in the Industry

Stand Up now has a core group of 15 and a membership base of 580 workers. That swells to about 1,200 during a campaign. Ashila says she is working to expand the benefits Stand Up provides and grow membership by at least 4,000 members in the next five years.

Her big idea to transform the Sri Lankan garment industry? Supporting workers and educating them about their rights so they have sustainable employment. According to Ashila, most remain in the garment industry for just five years because of dissatisfaction with their low salaries and tough working and living conditions. In addition, trust funds accrue at the end of five years, compelling workers to collect the money and go back to their villages, where few job opportunities await them. Meanwhile, factories lose trained workers, lowering productivity. And Stand Up loses members that have helped to develop worker rights.

“What I want to do is create an environment where workers keep on living and working in the industry and have the opportunity to fight and win their rights," Ashila says. “This will benefit the economy of the country, the workers themselves and the process of winning workers' rights."

Her work comes at a crucial time. China has long been the dominant garment exporter. But with rising prices, other countries have an opportunity to grab a larger share of the market. The World Bank estimates that even a 1 percent rise in the expected wage increases the likelihood of women joining the labour force in Sri Lanka's apparel industry by 89 percent.


Eight Hours to a Living Wage

Foremost, it is Ashila's goal to ensure workers can earn a living wage within eight hours of work.


“There are many hidden costs for workers," she says. “These workers are separated from their families and are absent from family matters. They cannot obtain leave to perform many social obligations and become distant from society. So these hidden costs are not covered and the workers are under a lot of stress. If they can earn the living wage within eight hours, many of these issues can be resolved."


Already, being a member of Stand Up has improved work conditions for Shirone, the leather worker. She says that her managers know she is part of the network.


“Before I joined, they would not hesitate to keep me till late, even after 10 p.m.," she says. “But now, since they know that I'm in this movement, when the time's up, even if the production is not done, they say you go home now. That's what this movement has done."

Mary-Rose Abraham is a multimedia journalist with more than fifteen years' experience as a reporter, producer and videographer. She is currently a freelancer based in Bangalore, India.

Fabric of Change is a global initiative by Ashoka and the C&A Foundation to support innovators for a fair and sustainable apparel industry. Learn More