Garment girls say no to harassment
Garment workers have launched a collection of songs to uplift the image of working women in Sri Lanka’s biggest export industry.
The collection of 12 songs in CD and cassette format, titled “Sannali Purawara,” (City of Tailors) was launched last Sunday by the Women’s Centre in Katunayake, an organisation campaigning for the rights of working women, to commemorate its 25 anniversary. The songs, some composed and sung by garment workers, are dedicated to the thousands of ‘garment girls’ working in factories in the free trade zones and outside. The collection is funded by the Christian World Service of New Zealand. The Women’s Centre is hoping the songs will help change social attitudes towards garment sector workers.
“These girls are treated very badly by our society. They are called all kinds of derogatory names like juki badu, keli, and so many worse names. They are harassed on the roads and preyed upon by everyone. But they are the people earning money for this country. We want to tell people not to treat them badly,” said the Coordinator of the Women’s Centre, Padmini Weerasuriya.
The songs are expected to generate sympathy and understanding for the working women in the garment sector but are also expected to showcase the talents and capabilities of the garment girls.
“Five of the songs are composed and sung by these girls. We want people to know that these girls are capable of more than just sewing. People don’t realise that these girls are talented and are capable of other things,” said Ms Weerasuriya.
The Women’s Centre has also produced a street drama that it is now taking on the road, to raise awareness about violence against working women. The street drama is performed in public areas to build public support against harassment of women in buses, roads and public places all over Sri Lanka.
Women’s organisations say that sexual harassment on the roads and public transport, are a major obstacle to the freedom of movement of working women. The harassment, say women’s organisations, discourage women from going to work and thereby adversely affects the entire economy.
Over 80% of the workforce of Sri Lanka’s garment industry is made up of young women, concentrated in the Free Trade Zone areas. Women’s groups says that although working conditions at factories have improved, verbal and physical harassment, particularly after dark, have become a pressing problem in these localities.
The working girls say they are incessantly targeted for sexual harassment by men loitering in dark corners in the roads, under trees, in bus stands and the railway station, in the evenings. Travelling to-and-from work is made an ordeal because of the sexual harassment in buses. Women are also in constant danger of being attacked and robbed for their jewellery or money, after dark. So much so, that in March this year, a coalition of women’s organisations took to the roads of Katunayake, on a campaign against harassment on roads.
The road campaign has shown some positive results. “After we did the walk against harassment, the Katunayake police have been visiting the factories and giving lectures and educating the working girls about sexual harassment and how to avoid such situations. Also, now, the police won’t allow men to loiter on the roads with bicycles or motorcycles. Garment factory owners have also woken up to the real situation outside the factories,” said Ms Weerasuriya.
Attitude change needed
The harassment, poor living conditions, low status, low pay and the sex trade on the side, however have already combined to turn people away from garment industry jobs. Village girls are no longer lining up for garment factory jobs and factories are having difficulties filling up vacancies.
Garment workers say factories are now asking existing employees to introduce new workers into the factories, for a recruitment fee. Some factories are reportedly conducting recruitment campaigns in villages while others are using village agents of foreign employment agencies to recruit for them.
“There are an estimated 30,000 vacancies in the industry. There could be many reasons for this but the biggest problem is the bad image. In rural areas parents don’t like to send their children for garment jobs. So the need is to remove the stigma associated with garment work,” said T. G. Ariyarathne, Secretary General of the Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF), the representative body of the garment industry.
To support the industry, the JAAF is also developing an image building campaign. “We are developing a campaign to reach influencers as well as potential workers, to show them that garment industry working conditions have improved,” said Ariyarathne.
However, women’s organisations say the US$ 2.7 billion export industry still suffers from harsh living conditions like unhygienic boarding facilities, inadequate transport facilities, particularly after dark, and the increasing cost of living. These factors, on top of the stigma attached to the job, make the industry unattractive to young people as well as parents.