5th October 1997


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Saving them from the seamy side

Monika Ruvanpathirane has worked closely with girls employed at the Export Processing Zone (EPZ) in Katunayake, and has recently launched an awareness programme to educate the female employees of the EPZ on how to avoid the many new problems they encounter in the city. Dilrukshi Handunnetti reports

Padmini"We get holidays when curfew is imposed or when we are asked to leave," laughed Padmini Weerassoriya who was employed by a leading garment factory in Katunayaka.

Her A/L qualification was not politically valid, and she was forced to seek employment in a non-EPZ factory. There she got involved in trade union work and was promptly dismissed . She served a EPZ factory and then moved to the Katunayaka Women’s Centre to work for the betterment of the working women. There are no hostel facilities provided, nor transport after work and these girls have to walk two miles in the dark to reach the main road. There are no matrons or nurses available if they need anything while on the night shift.

Once they go to their cramped boarding places, they have to cook and clean. A tiny room is shared by ten girls which is inadequate for them to even lay their ten mats on despite each paying Rs. 300.

The workplaces are certainly not the stuff of city fairy tales. The labour conditions are appalling, with minimal welfare facilities. Despite the labour laws in the country, there are no matrons around when they do their night shifts. They are made to work on a double shift often, which is physically exhausting. They are spoken to like dirt, and made to work at breakneck speed . Despite being entitled to one hour’s lunch break, they are compelled to gulp down the food and return to work.

The majority of them fall within the age group of 21 to 30 years. Most of them work for about five years, and no more. Few return to their homes and settle down. Many cannot return home for the various experiences they have had while in Colombo. Some have given birth to illegitimate children, lost jobs and due to abject poverty turned beggars or prostitutes. A small percentage of them get affected by venereal diseases while the majority develop weak eyesight and spinal problems. This is the routine in the world of garment factory workers known as Juki girls.

They have to put up with many undesirable working conditions. After an eight hour shift, they are required to work extra hours if the situation so demands. They work all seven days a week, and sometimes on May Day dedicated to the working class . The ones who are not willing to comply are asked to leave, for there are so many unemployed who are waiting to fill those vacancies. Those who value their jobs, put up with the agony rather than risk the only source of income they happen to have.

When the country began to liberalise its economy twenty years ago, the emphasis fell on employment generation. This led to the mass recruitment of young, inexperienced people, mostly females to hold various jobs in the newly- emerging factories coming under the Free Trade Zones (FTZs). The garment factories which largely operate under the three Export Processing Zones (EPZs) in the country are massive revenue earners and contributors to the economic advancement of the country. But the story of their workers is one of sweat and tears, in this Welfare State.

While grappling with various issues that needed to be addressed with the introduction of the EPZ projects, the majority of the untutored girls faced difficulties in adapting to the new social change, and there was no one to look into this aspect of the story. There were none to educate them on their rights and render assistance when necessary.

Monika Ruvanpathirane has worked closely with girls employed at the Export Processing Zone in Katunayake, and has recently launched an awareness programme to educate the female employees of the EPZ on how to avoid the many new problems they encounter in the city. She observes that restoring their sagging spirits and boosting their morale are the two most difficult things she has been up against. Shocked by their vulnerability and struggle to adapt to the new lifestyle and places of work, Monika wanted to highlight the special issues concerning women, like the long hours, possible harassment in workplaces, the social difficulties and labour conditions. She started a Gender Resource Centre affiliated to the Participatory Institute for Development Alternatives (PIDA), and chose specific projects like overseas employed and free trade employed women giving priority to those working at the Katunayake EPZ.

"Most of them come from very rural backgrounds, and get bedazzled by the city lights. For a lot of them, it is an opportunity to lead a free life, while not being accountable to any family mores. This is the reason a lot of girls go astray, and as a result find it difficult to return to their homes," she says.

It has never been what one would term a "fun job." The reason is clear. When you have to toil for hours on end, squinting your eyes, straining yourself at work on an extended shift, be insulted in the process as ‘Juki girls,’ and shunned by society; it is a job you hold because you have to, not because you like to.

"We are castigated as either rebels who left home over petty brawls, or immoral enough to stand the garment factories’ treatment of women. This is not true, for we are here out of compulsion and stay for the same reason. Who would want to willingly sacrifice mental and physical well being, be treated with prejudice and face difficulties in returning to villages, because you are looked upon as ‘queer animals?’ says Dipika, who has worked in a garment factory in Katunayake for four years. She is scared to visit her birth place, a hamlet named Dela in the Ratnapura District.

"Villagers believe that you have to be a prostitute in order to survive here. Some have fallen prey to professional lovers who get friendly with us only to have a good time, but there are girls who toil hard to earn and save for their future. Many are the dutiful daughters who maintain their parents at the risk of their own future. I have chosen to risk my reputation and care for my aged parents, rather than let the castigation of the villagers judgment affect me," she said.

But not every one has the vision and foresight displayed by Dipika, and many fail to watch their own interests once they start living in the big city.

As their stories unravel, themselves, one can only feel sorry rather than judge. Some are driven by a motive to earn and save for the future, some by the desire to be rid of their restrictive and conventional homes. The result is more or less the same, with the majority falling prey to some hawk.

Physical safety of the female cadres is an aspect overlooked by the employers who continue to recruit girls en masse be it while travelling, in hostels on workplaces. Despite the Katunayake EPZ having been set up in 1979, it has taken two decades to create a female worker force to combat their various problems and to properly implement the labour standards which have existed as part of the legislative framework of this welfare state.

‘Parents should accept part of the blame for the plight of their children. I have found the main reason for this to be their previously sheltered lives in village societies, and a result of being sent to the city all of a sudden. From village-bred innocence, it is too much of a contrast. If parents at least let their children mingle with others from the neighbouring villages they would learn to adapt better. Otherwise they become social misfits," Monika observed.

As Neluni who hails from a tiny village in Polonnaruwa described, it was rather depressing to realise that they could not find suitable jobs having successfully completed their A/L examination.

"I got heartily sick of waiting for a job that would be in keeping with my education. I gulped down my humiliation before coming here. Mine is a very rural village, and there you appear little less than a prostitute if you work for a garment factory. But I had the duty cast upon me as the eldest child to support my younger brothers. My father was paralyzed, and I decided that waiting will not bring a red cent home, and left ."

Several girls told us the most difficult task was to meet the production target set for them. If they fail to complete the task within the allocated time, over time is not paid despite the long hours they put in to complete work. Even novices are expected to meet the same demand after short training.

SriyaSriya Ahangama left the EPZ with asthma and a spinal problem. Married and a mother of a six month old baby, she also has found a meaningful way of helping the girls who remind her of her ‘factory past,’

"Married females are told to vacate office, as factories are always interested in the very young. Having failed to enter university due to the lack of a few marks, I never thought of working in an EPZ. Being poor, I had to. But what one can do with a paltry salary of Rs. 2,500 is anyone’s guess" she said.

Mrs. Ruvanpathirane who took fifty girls from the EPZ to spend a weekend with her at the Diyagala Boys Town, claims the impact of consumer culture on the girls is immeasurable. There she noticed their enthusiasm about the drastic changes taking place in their lives and new found freedom. They only complained of inadequate salaries, hostel facilities and transport and showed all signs of having become puppets of consumer propaganda and had developed shallow values. Yet, they remained fascinated and blinded by the city lights. "Despite their claims to poverty, about 30% of them are not the extremely poor. They are so smitten by consumer trends that priority is given to clothes, and they feel good clothes are a status symbol. They hardly invest in anything except a few pieces of jewellery."

Over sixty percent of the girls are extremely susceptible to men, mostly from outside and some from their places of work. They become the playthings of professional lovers who have several love affairs at the same time. Many have lost employment due to misconduct, like Niroshini (See box)

Her experience is not uncommon. Rejection and depression are two common features in their lives. They are largely guided by the mental images toisted efficiently by the promotional media. The tendency therefore is to live in a dream world, and believe the impossible.

‘They read all the soppy, inferior quality tabloid papers in town. These papers have contributed to a drastic deterioration in the value system. Infatuated with these false propagandist images, they accept superficial love as genuine," Monika observed.

Having decided that changes could be affected by a gender awareness programme and restoring the age old Sri Lankan values, she began conducting informal meetings for literary appreciation. A Chinese story extolling the virtues of mother was selected As the story continued and the discussion commenced, there were many tears shed by girls. Some felt they had disgraced their mothers, and some believed they had become failures in the moral arena. Many spoke of the day they left their mothers to start working, and how mothers waited for their daughter after dusk..

After several such programmes, the girls decided to organise a cultural programme which was held two months ago with the participation of several leading artists performing free of charge. Here they gave full rein to their pent up feelings and how they had become social outcasts.

Even the trade union movements come to their assistance only to lodge complaints and file legal action. There is no collective action mooted to improve their lifestyles.

If there is an attitudinal change, and they begin to choose tastefully and carefully, their lot could certainly improve. They have always been ridiculed and laughed at, but none have extended them support. As Monika Ruvanpathirane says, they are our future mothers, and they deserve to be protected.

"A mother makes the nation, and unless these girls are looked after, the next generation of mothers would be valueless and sick females who have sold their souls for the allure of in the big city. Mine is a small effort to improve their tastes , harnessing their intelligence and help them face life more successfully." she said.

As a popular radio advertisement states; "They weave garments of finesse through a haze of tears, protect them from misfortune."

A pretty girl from Badalgama, Niroshini was only twenty when she joined a garment factory. Her family had enough to feed the two daughters on and it was not compulsory for them to work. Nevertheless, the bright lights appealed to her, and amidst protests from home, she came to Colombo. Mercifully, she was provided with hostel facilities by the employers. She found a city lover who took her to plush restaurants, drove her around in a car he borrowed from a friend. She was so taken up with the sophisticated air he had, she decided to move in with him.

‘That was a big decision, but I thought that we could soon be married. After three months, he quarrelled with me and left. I was dismissed, and I could not return to my conventional parents. I had saved some money for the wedding which I spent until I had my baby, and found a small job thereafter. I have no desires or dreams except to protect my daughter from a similar plight," she said, a solitary tear coursing down her cheek.

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