Date: Mon, 20 Feb 1995 10:30:08 -0500 (EST)
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From Rags to the Rag Trade

By Ramani Jayasundere, for the Women's Feature Service. 30 November, 1995

Colombo, Nov. 30 (WFS) -- They live in boarding houses, six women sharing one small room, and work 10-hour days. They worry about leaving the factory alone at night and send their savings home. It's the life of the working woman in the burgeoning rag trade and thousands are grateful to make it their own.

Sri Lanka's thriving garments industry is the biggest contributor to the country's job sector and its foreign exchange earnings. The lifeblood of the industry are some 500,000 young women, ages 18 to 35, who make up 90 percent of the workforce.

Typical of these workers is Mangalika Kumari, 19, who left her job as a domestic aide to work in a garments factory in her village east of Sri Lanka's capital of Colombo. "I want to be independent," she says.

N.K. Premawathi, 26, worked for five years in a factory in Colombo. Starting as a packer, she was promoted to the sewing department and earned 3,500 rupees, or $70 a month. She saved enough to buy jewelry, furniture and a trousseau for her marriage to a shopkeeper in her village.

"I worked hard so that I could marry respectably," said Premawathi. "Now I'll stay home and look after my husband."

Ashoka Dissanayake, 29, works a 10-hour day sewing collars. She earns 2,000 rupees, or $40 a month, the minimum wage in Sri Lanka. She pays for her food and rent in a boarding house and also sends money to her old parents and siblings who have no other income.

Sri Lanka has more than 350 garment factories spread across the island, each employing at least 450 young women as seamstresses, pattern makers, cutters, packers and checkers producing ready-mades for export to Europe and the United States.

In 1993 the industry registered a 39 percent growth compared to the previous year and earned 47.9 billion rupees or $9.5 million, the Bank of Ceylone reports. The income is expected to double in two years.

The rag trade is the most popular form of employment among young women as it does not ask for educational qualifications or work experience and pays a basic wage of 2,000 rupees.

Factory employees come from all backgrounds; some with a basic education, others with university degrees. Seela de Silva, 32, is an arts graduate who cannot find other work as she knows no English.

Kamal Perera, 25, a trainee teacher, who is paid 2,100 rupees a month says, "A garment worker, with overtime, earns more than I do."

"I earn well but I have to work very hard," counters garment worker Renuka Dissanayake. "For a 10-hour, six-day week, with 20 hours of overtime, I earn about 1,000 rupees," she said, the equivalent of $20 a week.

A recent survey in the Katunayake Free Trade Zone showed that some women who worked 73 hours per week, including Sundays, with only one day off per month and received only 2,450 rupees a month.

Working conditions vary. While some factories have heat-proof ceilings, fans and piped Sinhala music, others are furnished with only sewing machines and stools. The Factories Ordinance requires all factories to provide adequate sanitation facilities, a sick room and a canteen. But these are often not provided.

Yet women are thankful for being allowed to use toilets when they wish and for the two tea breaks every day.

Asoka Dissanayake wearies of working overtime and not receiving additional payment. But the women rarely voice their complaints. They know they are dispensable. "For one that leaves or is dismissed, there are five waiting to get in," says S. Mohammed, director of a factory employing 450 women.

Some Liyanage, 30, says the factory where she works deducts half a day's pay if a worker is half an hour late for work. "For every day I am absent, 400 Rupees is deducted, which is 20 percent of my salary."

But in some factories the women are rewarded and factory work is not always a hard-luck story. Some factories organize annual sports meets, New Year's festivals and outings of three or four days. "This year's trip to the sacred cities of Sri Lanka cost us 400,000 rupees," says Mihindu de Silva, manager of a factory. There are also cash awards for attendance, punctuality and output.

Before the late President Premdasa's program to build garment factories in villages, all factories were concentrated in the main towns and the Free Trade Zone in Katunayake, near Colombo. Women migrate to work here. Most find accommodations nearby and walk to work to save money.

Boarding houses have sprung up near the factories. Locals are busy making money by letting out rooms, providing food and making dresses for the hard-working seamstresses.

Kamala Gunawardena's tailoring booth attracts 10 customers a day. "It's ironic that we cannot sew our own clothes," says Padmini Mangalike. "We sew only a part of a garment like the collar or the sleeves or the darts and we never learn to sew a whole item."

Boarding house life is not sweet. Five or six women live in one small room, paying 200 rupees each a month for the space of a bed or mat. At times a room houses seven or even 10 women who share the available beds. Between 10 and 30 women share one toilet. Cooking is done together or individually in a kitchen or makeshift shack.

"I spend 500 rupees a month cooking for myself," says N.K. Abeymanike, 20. "It costs more if I eat out. After paying the rent, I'm left with 1,800 rupees which is more money than I could have saved anywhere else."

Appalling as they seem, few women complain about the living conditions.

"I come from a poor family," explains Abeymanike. "In our house we have two rooms for eight of us. We all sleep in one room. The other room is the kitchen. We walk to the well to bathe and use the common toilet meant for 100 others in the neighborhood. This life is not hard for me. After all I'm earning a big salary," she smiles.

Salaries are spent in many ways. On jewelry and clothes or to send to parents or educate younger siblings. Abeymanika, like many others, sends most of her salary home. Occasionally she treats herself to a new dress, shoes, a handbag and, on special occasions, a portrait of herself, taken in a photo studio.

Factory life has its hazards. Many women are required to work late and make their own way home at night.

Amitha Hemali, 21, says she was scared at the beginning but "now I have Sarath." Sarath is her neighborhood boyfriend. He waits near the factory every night to escort her to the boarding house. Many women are escorted by men, some in love, some under an arrangement where they pay the man monthly for the security he provides.

Many are verbally and physically abused by men on badly lit roads. Some have had their belongings snatched and there have been instances of kidnapping and rape.

"We provide a transport for women who work late," says Mohammed. But his factory is rare in the services it provides. He has equipped it with a sick room, a full-time nurse and a visiting doctor. The doctor is paid for by the factory and the workers jointly.

But workers are not all content. In a recent incident in Mohammed's factory, 90 women went on strike to demand payment for extra hours worked. The same group had earlier protested over management wasting money on entertainment, saying it should have been distributed to workers. After a week of demonstrating, most trickled back to work and normalcy resumed.

Problems aside, for the economy, and for the unskilled, untrained and less educated, the rag trade provides the best deal there is in Sri Lanka today.

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