Made in Sri Lanka, ethical garments

The garment sector is hoping to leverage the strong labour regulations that govern factory working conditions and the industry practice of avoiding child labour, to position Sri Lanka as an ethical producer of clothing.

By Dilshani Samaraweera

The garment industry has launched a Rs 50 million government-funded image building programme to position Sri Lanka globally as an ethical clothing producer.

Last week the garment sector launched a collective industry label and image building campaign -‘Made in Sri Lanka; Garments without Guilt’. Sri Lanka’s number one export industry is hoping to differentiate itself from among the mounting competition by carving out a niche as an ethical producer.

“We have found that when buyers visit our factories they are extremely surprised by our standards. This means we have not communicated ourselves to the rest of the world,” explained Ashroff Omar, Chairman of the Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF) at the launch of the campaign on Monday.

The garment sector is hoping to leverage the strong labour regulations that govern factory working conditions and the industry practice of avoiding child labour, to position Sri Lanka as an ethical producer of clothing. The industry says the ‘Garments without Guilt’ communication strategy is based on the growing international consumer awareness of the need to safeguard human rights and human dignity.

The campaign is a public private partnership with Rs 50 million coming from the government coffers. The image building programme that was adopted after buyer research in the US and EU, will initially target Sri Lanka’s biggest export markets the US, UK, France and Germany.

At the moment the US is Sri Lanka’s largest customer and buys over half – 58 percent – of total export production. However, this amounts to less than 1 percent of total global imports of clothing by the US. Sri Lanka’s second largest market for textile and clothing are the EU countries that buy up around 37% of production but again this is only around 1.26 percent of total imports by the EU from the world. The garment sector’s new image building campaign is aimed at retaining and growing these large markets in the face increasing competition.

The ethical branding strategy, say manufacturers, may not lead to direct financial returns but would help meet ethical expectations of consumers in these countries. Brands that place manufacturing orders with Sri Lankan factories are expected to benefit through their ability to meet these consumer expectations. This is turn, is expected to maintain the inflow of orders for Sri Lankan factories. “What we will get, is an intangible premium. We can’t go to buyers and say pay more for our products because we are ethical and we don’t use children to make clothes, but we can make buyers feel more comfortable buying from us,” explains Kumar Mirchandani, Chairman of the Marketing and Image Building sub committee of the JAAF.

The industry hopes to communicate its new brand image of ‘Garments without Guilt’ via packing material and corporate communication media like letter heads and will also create a website to interact with buyers and consumers.

Decent work

Garment producers say compliance with the labour laws automatically ensures better work conditions in Sri Lanka than in many other developing countries.

“Our labour laws govern factory standards, work conditions and welfare measure for women and expectant mothers. We also don’t have child labour in our factories. Child labour is just not part of our culture,” says Mirchandani. Strong labour regulations previously qualified Sri Lanka for duty cuts from the EC during its earlier GSP regime (Generalised System of Preferences) and more recently contributed to getting GSP+ (Generalised System of Preferences plus) status for Sri Lanka.

“We were audited by the EC before they gave us the GSP+. This is very significant because it was an independent audit,” says Mirchandani.

The garment factories are also one of the biggest sources of employment, particularly for young women from rural areas that have limited employment opportunities in their villages. Unemployment among Sri Lankan women (14.2%) is more than double that of men (6.3%) and unemployment among young people in the age group of 19 to 24 was at 30% in 2003-2004, according to the Central Bank Annual Report 2005.

However, the garment industry, the country’s biggest employer in the manufacturing sector, provides direct employment to over 300,000 persons. Most of the workers – over 80%- are young women from rural parts of the island.

The employment opportunities in the sector, say apparel manufacturers, have contributed to lowering unemployment and increasing economic empowerment of women.

Social image

The JAAF says it is also working at uplifting the social status and image of garment workers through a separate programme. The apparel industry body says it has invested in the production of songs that communicate a positive message about garment sector work to the public and is also considering a television production. Although work conditions within Sri Lankan garment factories have improved, women workers are subjected to sexual harassment, derogatory name calling and even theft outside factory premises on their way back to boarding houses after work, generally at night.

In March this year women’s groups took to the roads in the area of the Katunayake free trade zone, on a campaign against sexual harassment on the roads. “We know that, unfairly so, there is a stigma attached to working in the apparel sector. A lot of it is cultural. But these are the people keeping our economy going. So we are trying to uplift the perception of garment industry work,” said Mirchandani.

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