Generations-old laundry workers may be squeezed dry by modernisation


The Urban Development Authority (UDA) is reviewing two locations in Colombo where generations old open air laundries are situated, in view of major foreign investment ventures expected in the area.

UDA Director General Nihal Fernando said no specific decision had been taken yet and that the locations in Kollupitiya were under review along with the fast modernization that was happening in this area with the massive foreign investment that is expected.
Workers at these two laundries in Kollupitiya have attended two rounds of talks with UDA officials to discuss future development plans.

Laundry at Armour Street

S. Premaratna, a third generation laundry worker who heads the recently formed society for workers at Kollupitiya said UDA officials had asked for their ideas regarding the development of the area they live in. “We want to stay at the same location but they cannot develop the area while we stay here,” he said.

The open air laundries have been in existence from the time of the British with some  fourth generation members  of the families  now washing, drying and pressing clothes for a loyal clientele  that include  hotels in the city.

When the Sunday Times met some of the workers at these laundries at Kollupitiya, Navam Mawatha  and  Armour Street, one common feature was their poor living conditions and the lack of any state-sponsored welfare facilities.
M. Mylvaganam (63) has lived and worked at the Armour Street (Laundry Watta) from the time he was a teenager.  “Both my grandfather and father worked here and I also began working as soon I was able to physically engage in washing clothes,” he said.
This open air laundry which dates back to 1931 has more than 100 workers but the number of families that lived there which was around less than 20, about 40 years ago has now increased to over 150.

“When we were small in numbers we lived in one house but now we have children and they also have children .Then there is my brother’s family with their families, so we are cramped up into small rooms,” he said.  Mylvaganam lives in a single line home with his wife where they cook, eat and sleep.

K.B.Dhanapala (80) is among the oldest surviving workers at the Armoru Street laundry. He has worked almost all his life here and continues to press clothes. The charcoal iron he uses weighs six and a half kilos and while he has no complaints about the weight of the iron it is the increasing cost of charcoal that brdens him.

S. V. Cyril : Worried about the high cost of charcoal. Pix by Saman Kariyawasam

“Charcoal prices are going up and our business is declining so it is a struggle to meet the rising cost of living,” Dhanapala said.
As work at the laundries involves manual work, it is only as long as they are physically fit can they engage in their work. “We pay a small tax to the municipality but have to settle water and electricity bills.

However, there are no welfare activities for us and the day we are unable to work, we will be destitute. Even the Samurdhi grant is not given to us,’ he said.

S. V. Cyril (58) who works at the Kollupitiya laundry mart spends his days ironing clothes. His lament too is about the high cost of charcoal and the decline of his income. “Many of the hotels that used to send us their washing are now equipped with electric machines and do not need our services anymore,” he said.

The Kollupitiya open air laundry has been in existence since 1928 and most of the washing and living areas remains unchanged. “We pay the Water Board for the water as well as rates to the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC). The water rates are too high for us as it’s the same rate that is charged from hotels,” he said.

Slave Island Public Health Inspector Deepika Perera, whose quarters are adjoining the Navam Mawatha open air laundry said the sanitary facilities at the laundry were unsatisfactory.

“Most of the buildings remain as they were built during the British times and need to be modernized, she said.

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