MisFortune 500
a project of
Women's Environment & Development Organization
16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence
25 November - 10 December 2007
Day 9
Sril Lankan coalition ALaRM fights for garment workers' "living wage"

In October, garment workers and organizers launched a campaign demanding a 'Living Wage', contending that current wages are not enough for workers to live on.

The campaign for a living wage in the apparel sector in Sri Lanka is led by the Apparel Industry Labour Rights Movement (ALaRM), a coalition of trade unions and worker's rights organisations. 

According to its organizers, "ALaRM is a wake-up call. It is a collective formed to fight for the rights of women workers in the garment industry."

In an interview with MisFortune 500, Padmini Chandrakanthi of the Women's Centre, a member of ALaRM, stated that 90% of the garment workers are women and are working for companies such as GAP, Nike, Columbia and Tommy Hilfiger. The workers do not receive living wages, and also face "unjust and poor working conditions, health problems, lack of holiday and leave and unrealistic production targets," Chandrakanthi said.

ALaRM's demands include fair compensation, living wages, unfettered freedom of association, and better living conditions.

Salaries of garment workers were increased earlier this year but activists and workers say salaries are not enough to live on.  A survey in 2005, conducted by ALaRM, found that the minimum monthly salary of a garment worker in the Free Trade Zones should actually be Rs 12,504, to have a decent life and send home some money. The survey found that a worker outside the zone required a salary of Rs.10,183. 

Yet salaries of most garment workers are still below Rs 10,000 per month.

Sri Lanka's apparel industry representative body, the Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF), said that most garment factories cannot afford the demanded pay increases. But 2006 garment exports, the work of nearly 300,000 garment workers, brought US$ 3 billion into Sri Lanka.

"In general, most of the garment workers, even with over time and Saturdays and Sundays and Poya day work will not get Rs 10,000 per month. Most of them earn about Rs 8,000 - Rs 9,000 per month with all the over time," said Ms Padmini Weerasuriya, coordinator of the Women's Centre. With costs of essential items continually increasing, workers are spending increasing portions of their incomes on bare basics. When workers do not make enough to cover costs, many that do not receive all three meals at their factories, cut down on food, leading to poor nutrition. Poor nutrition in turn, contributes to lower productivity.

"When what they earn is not enough, they start cutting down on things that can't be noticed from outside. The first thing they cut down on is their food. There was one girl who cooked herself one meal for the day and for five days she ate only rice and wattakka (pumpkin). It's pathetic but we found lots of examples like this in our survey," said Ms Ashila Niroshini Mapalagama, legal coordinator at the labour division of Right to Life, a member of ALaRM.

Global garment markets are becoming increasingly price competitive. So to remain in business, many Sri Lankan garment factories are trying to increase output and bring down unit costs. But the strategy is not working because of the rate of increase of cost of living in the country. Costs - of both garment factories and garment workers - are going up regardless, eating into company profits and incomes of workers. Overall, for workers, longer hours of work to increase output, are not leading to better quality of life.

So from October through November, thousands of garment workers organized and participated in a variety of events-from lamp lightings to demonstrations to awareness rallies-to put pressure on companies and the government to increase their wages.

With garment workers fighting for better working conditions and living wages, their protests and actions have been met with policy violence, imprisonment and government repression.

Until the garment workers win their struggle for a living wage, ALaRM says it will continue to mobilize workers, raise awareness about workers rights, study and publicize the hard work and poor working conditions of garment industry workers, carry out media and publicity campaigns, lobby and negotiate with employers, the government and buyers, and work as part of international campaigns aimed at raising the standards of women workers.

Information provided by ALaRM. Photo courtesy of Clean Clothes Campaign.

Quick Links...
Contact Information
Women's Centre: womencentre@sltnet.lk
Oxfam Sri Lanka Office: kalani@srilanka.oxfam.org.au

MisFortune 500: info@misfortune.org
16 Days Campaign

The annual 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence campaign helps raise awareness about gender violence and its effects on women globally. During the 2007 campaign, MisFortune 500 will feature some of the leading stories of 2007 year that demonstrate what women continue to be up against and ways they are resisting violence and working for change.