A growing shortage of female workers is threatening to imperil one of the country’s key industrial sectors. The garment industry accounts for the second-largest earner of foreign currency, but low wages, poor working conditions and growing opportunities for self-employment have led to a deficit of workers. In just two of the country’s export zones, there are currently about 21,000 vacancies that need filling. Aushka Pathirana, 28, from rural Anuradhapura says she barely gets by on her salary as a garment factory worker. “I work hard for 12 hours a day but earn only about 15,000 rupees (US$134) per month, even with lots of overtime,” she said.
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“I have to pay for my room, and I take care of my mother and sister, who is still in school.” The majority of factory workers are women like Pathirana, who migrate from rural areas to seek better employment opportunities than are available in their home villages. Women constitute about 85 percent of the country’s industrial workforce, and the majority of these are between 25 and 30 years of age. Pathirana has worked in a Katunayake Free Trade Zone factory for the last 10 years. She shares a small room with four friends to help save money. All four of her roommates have left their factory jobs. Two have returned to family farms, while two others have started their own small businesses doing private garment work. In addition to low wages, heavy restrictions on workers’ unions have also driven employees from their jobs. “If somebody joins a trade union or protests over poor treatment of workers, they will be sacked without notice. We have prior experience of such cases,” Pathirana said. The shortage of workers could over time affect an industry that provides direct employment for more than 330,000 people and indirectly for another half million people in the country’s 1,060 garment factories. Union leaders say the industry initially flourished on the basis of low-cost labor, but that an increase in the cost of living has made factory work much less attractive for workers. "Nobody is ready to work like a robot day and night for such unfair wages,” said Anton Marcus, a union leader and general secretary of the Free Trade Zones and General Services Union. “That is why there are so many unfulfilled vacancies and a growing reluctance among youth towards entering the garment factories,” he said. "Even the 2013 national budget has allocated nothing for the betterment of factory workers but instead contains lots of additional support for factory owners," he added. For their part, factory owners say that the garment industry is becoming financially unviable with increasing demands for high wages and better working conditions. “In the past, there was an actual relationship between low labor rates and low garment costs. That is now coming to an end,” said Saman R. Fernando, human resources manager of Mass Apparels. “Workers move from one factory to another factor every three months, and some of them leave altogether,” he said. “Every facility that an employee possesses is given, including free transportation and food,” said Fernando, whose Mass Apparels exports garments to the United Kingdom. “We have a shortage of machine operators and general labor, as well as high manufacturing costs.” Fernando added that his company has experienced slow growth as a result of the financial crises in the United States and Europe, and that while efforts are being made to target new markets in Asia, many regional companies are looking to countries other than Sri Lanka for cheaper labor. Lakshman Yapa Abeywardana, deputy minister of economic development, said in a press briefing in November that labor shortages have grown across all the country’s industrial sectors, and that solutions still need to be found. “The Katunayaka and Biyagama export zones alone have 21,000 vacancies to fill. A shortage of labor is a severe problem in other zones as well, and it affects the further development of the industry."