Garment workers urge ‘Living Wage’ in face of rising cost of living
Garment sector groups have launched a campaign for an immediate salary increase and a ‘sector specific’ living wage for garment workers.
ALaRM, a coalition of NGOs and trade unions in the garment sector, launched a campaign last week asking the Board of Investment (BOI) and garment factories for an immediate salary increase of Rs 2,500 for garment workers.
“The main objective of the campaign is to demand a salary increment of Rs. 2,500 from the forthcoming BOI salary increments in November for 2008, and to ensure the payment of the minimum wage of Rs 5,000 and the budgetary relief allowance of Rs.1,000 to each and every employee in the sector,” a statement from ALaRM said.
|Launching the campaign
ALaRM is also asking for a minimum ‘living wage’ of Rs 12,504 per month, for an 8 hour work day, for garment workers in the free trade zone, and a living wage of Rs.10,183 for garment workers employed outside trade zones.
The current minimum basic salary is only Rs 6,000. ALaRM says that most garment workers earn less than a living wage right now, even by working over time, working on holidays and with other benefits. The group says the present income of garment workers is not enough to lead a decent life given the cost of living in Sri Lanka.
ALaRM has already conducted a research into the cost of living of garment workers to arrive at their ‘living wage’ ceiling and has also compiled statements from garment workers at the Katunayake Free Trade Zone (FTZ) highlighting worker concerns.
What garment workers say
Sri Lanka’s garment export industry is made up of over 80% women workers and most are from rural areas and from the youth category of below 30 years of age.
Says Chrishanthi, a 23-year-old, who is working in a garment factory at the Katunayake trade zone;“We go home only twice a year. We live in a very frugal manner because we have to send some money home, bear the expenses on transport, boarding fees, etc. We have no leisure activities at all. Having earned for 4 years, I have not made for myself even a chain let alone a pair of bangles. We lead such a sad life.”
“A coconut costs Rs. 30, a loaf of bread is Rs. 35. This month the grocery bill was Rs 3,888. Unless there is a salary increase by at least Rs 2,500, we will have to resign and go home,” she said.
Niduka, has been working for six years at another garment factory at the Katunayake FTZ she says,“My hometown is Galle. My father died recently. I go home very often to see my mother. Whenever I go home, I give her some money and other than that I do not send home money frequently. At present my basic salary is Rs. 7,200. With overtime and night shifts I earn Rs. 14,000-15,000 a month.” To earn this ‘good’ pay Niduka gives up her life to the factory and works like a machine. “We have no time at all to have contact with the outside world. Even if it is possible, we don’t feel like doing so because we are too tired. We need not exert ourselves so much if the basic salary is good,” says Niduka.Niduka says living expenses are higher for workers at trade zones because they are not living at home.
“Since we do not bring anything from home, we have to buy everything we need from here. As we cook our food using the kerosene oil cooker, more than Rs. 500 has to be spent on kerosene alone. Boarding charges too have been increased up to Rs. 2,000 now. So when all these things are considered, we cannot say that we have achieved a lot, being away from our parents. We do not get any money from our parents,” she says.
Another worker from Katunayake, Nishanthi, left her previous factory because her monthly income was too low to live on.“I am 20 years old. After completing my G.C.E. (O.L.) examination I came to the Free Trade Zone since there were no other job opportunities. Earlier, I worked in another factory for about one year.
The basic salary was Rs. 5,500 and the salary in the last month was Rs. 6,350. I said good bye to that job because there was little overtime work there,” said Nishanthi. Currently the garment industry records vacancies of between 15,000 to 30,000 and some factories are actually paying their workers to bring in new recruits.
Nishanthi says better wages to start with, would encourage more people to join the garment sector.“Money is given when we go home on leave to bring new workers. If a good salary is paid such crises would not arise. If our labour is given a value and the dignity it deserves, everybody will work happily,” says Nishanthi.Yamuna also points out large salary anomalies among new recruits and people who have joined the sector earlier.
“There is a very big difference between the salaries of old employees and that of the newcomers. The salary of those who have been working for 10 years is Rs.7,800. How can we be satisfied with the job when such a situation is prevailing?” says Nishanthi.
ALaRM says that although the garment industry has empowered women and generated employment, the industry needs to re-examine its salary structures to continue to provide large scale benefits for people in the country, given the current cost of living.
Earlier the Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF) - the industry representative body of the apparel sector - in response to the ALaRM living wage campaign told The Sunday FT that most garment factories could not afford the demanded wage increase.
It called on the government to provide exchange rate stability and to control the rate of inflation, to hold down industry costs. The JAAF pointed out that containing the rate of inflation is the only solution to the cost of living problems faced by workers, as the industry is unable to raise wages at the rate of inflation.