At a public park in the United Arab Emirates, a group of female Sri Lankan migrant workers gather after losing their jobs. They have no accommodation and barely enough food. They are desperately awaiting repatriation by the Sri Lanka government which is delaying the process of bringing back, altogether 46,000 workers owing to a shortage [...]

Business Times

Dispelling ‘stigma’


At a public park in the United Arab Emirates, a group of female Sri Lankan migrant workers gather after losing their jobs. They have no accommodation and barely enough food. They are desperately awaiting repatriation by the Sri Lanka government which is delaying the process of bringing back, altogether 46,000 workers owing to a shortage of quarantine facilities at home.

At a boarding house in Katunayake, its female occupants – garment workers from the nearby free trade zone, who share rooms – are worried about their future with regard to their jobs and contracting COVID-19 after scores whom they closely associated with from the Brandix factory at Minuwangoda were infected.

Both the female migrant workers in West Asia and the garment workers back home are in two sectors that provide lifeblood to the Sri Lankan economy. Remittances from migrant workers are the country’s top foreign exchange earner while garment exports, in which women form the bulk of the workers, are the second highest forex earner.

As I pondered on these issues looking out of the open window, I could catch the conversation by the three friends who were seated under the margosa tree for their regular Thursday morning ‘gossip’.

Mage yaluwekge yaluwekta corona hadila, eya den ispirithale. Mage yaluwa den nirodhanaya wenawa. Eyata kohomda danne ne (A friend of one of my friends contracted COVID-19 and she is in hospital. I wonder how my friend, who is in self-quarantine, is?),” said Kussi Amma Sera. “Mata wena prashnayak thiyenne. Dubaiwala inna mage yaluwekuth nirodhanya karala eyage yaluwekta lede hadichcha hinda. Barapathala prashnayak ape lamai muna denna, eth anduwa egollanwa thama genne ne. Pav (I have a different issue. One of my friends in Dubai is in quarantine because her friend got the disease. What a sad plight for our workers and the government is still not bringing them down),” lamented Mabel Rasthiyadu.

Mata wenath prashnayak thiyenawa. Minissu asadarana katha kiyanne Brandix factoriye weda karana lamai gena, egollo wena ayata lede dunna kiyala. Egollo monawa karannada factoriye loku kattiya asaneepa wela paint wechcha kattiyata hariyata salakuwe nethnam (I have another problem. People are being unjust towards the affected workers at the Brandix factory saying they will infect others. What can they do when the factory management apparently didn’t treat some workers, who were ill and fainted, properly),” said Serapina.

In a statement, Director-General of the Government Information Department Nalaka Kaluwewa requested the heads of all media institutions not to ‘shoot’ or telecast scenes that could harm the privacy and social dignity of those suspected of being infected with COVID-19 or their associates.

Stigmatisation of female workers in the garment sector has always been a problem with the emergence of garment factories, labelling them as “Juki girls”, referring to the sewing machines used. That situation has since improved with better understanding and empathy towards the workers. However, in recent times arising out of the Minuwangoda cluster of infections, these women were subjected to ridicule on social media and treated like pariahs! In one social media outlet, a commentator slandered them with disparaging remarks. Would they have been subjected to such ridicule if they were men?

As I was about to work on my column discussing the need to dispel the stigma in society affecting two crucial segments of the Sri Lankan economy, the phone rang. On the line was ‘Shifty’ Silva, the always-inquisitive IT expert, this time, however, wanting to discuss a non-IT-related issue.

“I say, I was appalled by the social media criticism of garment workers who are down with the infection. What can they do? They didn’t willingly get infected. It’s a humane problem and people should give them a break,” he said, adding: “I think the company Brandix is also at fault as some workers were reportedly ill but the local managers didn’t take serious notice of their illness.” Some media reports quoted workers as saying that some of them who were ill were given Panadol and asked to continue working.

Brandix has vigorously defended its position saying that all health guidelines and precautions were in place. Apparently, they were not good enough because the infections from the factories have spread like wildfire and affected more than 1,700 people. Several associations of garment factories sprang to the defence of the company saying it was an ethical organisation and won’t knowingly cause the spread of COVID-19.

The Fabric and Apparel Accessory Manufacturers’ Association said that the recent COVID-19 outbreak at a Brandix factory was an unfortunate incident, as no company or industry will intentionally put its workforce or the members of the general public at risk.

“I agree. This stigmatisation should be curbed. These workers are like our mothers or sisters and should be treated with equal respect and dignity,” I told ‘Shifty’ Silva. “Sometimes I wonder whether it would be a better plan for the security forces to go along with local health officials and Public Health Inspectors when visiting boarding houses to take the occupants, if affected, for quarantine, if this practice is not already there. Sometimes, the forces visiting homes and boarding places also casts a stigma on the occupants,” he said, and ended the conversation after discussing many other issues.

For the record, foreign remittances in August rose by 28.2 per cent to US$664 million but remittances from January to August 2020 were down by 1.5 per cent to $4.3 billion and likely to end the year in similar fashion. Earnings from textiles and garments exports declined by 11.9 per cent in August, while according to some reports, apparel exports have fallen by 22 per cent to $3.1 billion in the nine months to September 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. Last year, remittances and garments exports together represented more than $12 billion in value terms, while exports (without remittances) totalled $12 billion.

According to Padmini Weerasuriya, Executive Director – Women’s Centre, Ekala, Jaela, at the beginning of the emergence of garment factories at the Katunayake Free Trade Zone, most women stayed in boarding houses, sometimes 10 to 15 people sharing a room. That situation has changed now and if a boarding has 15 rooms, it’s occupied by about 30 people. Over 30 women at Katunayake have become victims of COVID-19, largely since some of them shared rooms with workers from the Minuwangoda cluster.

With around 80,000 to 100,000 garment workers either losing their jobs or being without work as factories have fewer orders, workers are fearful of losing their jobs if the crisis continues and job orders wane.

Meanwhile, I gladly accepted the second mug of tea brought, this time, by Serapina, who said: “Sir, ape meda peradiga inna lamai saha mehe garment factoriwala inna lamaita harima dukai (Sir, the plight of our workers in West Asia and in garment factories here is sad).” I nodded in agreement, wishing that society won’t be harsh towards them as they are working hard and also providing the finances for their families. Any breakdown in these two sectors will, without a doubt, result in the Sri Lankan economy grinding to a halt.

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