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.
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.
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
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.
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.