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Religious brassware industry puts workers in harm's way

Sri Lankans suffer respiratory ailments in 'dying industry' beset by graft, labor shortages, illegal exports
Religious brassware industry puts workers in harm's way

Mohamed Ishath talks about multi-ethnic harmony in Sri Lanka's brassware industry at his shop in Kandy. (Photo by Niranjani Roland/ucanews.com)

Published: November 23, 2018 03:52 AM GMT
Updated: November 23, 2018 03:56 AM GMT

In Sri Lanka and elsewhere, traditional brass workers produce religious items for Buddhist temples, Christian churches, Hindu temples, and mosques including bronze statues, church bells, oil lamps, and carvings.

The ornamental brassware industry in this island nation has a multi-ethnic makeup and is supported by religious groups but rights groups say workers are in dire need of greater protection due to the risks to their health, among other issues.

The domestic industry is also wrestling with a slew of problems including widespread graft, labor shortages, illegal exports, poor industrial knowledge by key decision makers, and too much red tape, critics say.

Saman Kumarasiri, 50, has spent 35 years casting church bells, candlesticks, Buddhist statues, and Hindu gods. He works with 10 other laborers in the Kandy suburb of Pilimathalawa from 7.30am to 3.00pm several days a week.

He patiently explains his working process while expressing concern about occupational hazards such as the risk of contracting respiratory diseases as they are frequently exposed to fumes from heavy metals like copper and zinc. 

Saman Kumarasiri makes sand casts at his workplace in Pilimathalawa, Kandy. (Photo by Niranjani Roland/ucanews.com)


"There are several stages in the process of manufacturing brassware. First the scrap metal has to be melted and then poured into sand casts of various shapes. Once that is done, they are removed from the casts and the different parts welded together. Finally, the product has to be polished," he said.

"Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims are all involved in buying and selling brassware for this industry in Kandy," he said.

Kandy, a large city in Central Province, is famous for its sacred Buddhist sites including the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. A handful of districts are hubs for manufacturing ornamental brassware for religious venues.

When ucanews.com visited one such factory, a worker was seen pouring melted metal into sand casts without covering his face with any kind of protective mask, as the fumes permeated the workplace.

Brass workers encounter various health hazards such as air pollution by inhaling noxious fumes, sound pollution from the screaming of the machines, and skin complaints from direct contact with heavy metals and chemicals.

Breathing in the dust from the brass and silica released during the fettling and polishing stages are harmful to their health.

Kumarasiri said that he works three or four days a week and gets paid 2,000 Sri Lankan rupees a day (US$12).

"We all drink alcohol at the end of the day to ease the pain as it's such exhausting and low-paid work, it can be demoralizing," he said.

The products his team and others like them make can be seen exhibited at prominent shops in Pilimathalawa. Many Muslims and Tamil shop owners in Kandy buy them to sell in different parts of the country or overseas.

Shanmugam Murugadas is pictured at his shop, Selvams Brassware, in Kandy. He said the future of the brassware industry in Sri Lanka is at risk as low pay and health risks mean younger people are loath to enter it. (Photo by Niranjani Roland/ucanews.com)


Mohamed Isath, the Muslim owner of Kandyan Brassware, said he purchases ornamental brassware for wholesale from Sinhalese shops at Pilimathalawa.

"I've been involved in this business for 20 years. I inherited it from my father. We have forged genuine bonds of friendship with Sinhalese and Tamils," he said.

"Sometimes we buy on credit and settle up later. That's how much trust and faith we have," he said. "We also attend their festivals and funerals."

However, Shanmugam Murugadas, 42, said the brass workers fear for the future of the industry.

Murugadas, a Tamil, said 1kg of brass now costs 550 rupees and the younger generation is not interested in entering the industry.

"Skilled craftsmen are rare," said Murugadas at his Selvams Brassware shop.

"We supply scrap metal and ask laborers to make church bells, candlesticks, oil lamps, and Hindu and Buddhist statues," he said.

Sivakumari Maheswaran, 43, a Hindu woman who visited the shop, said she has purchased a stand for beetle leaves, a spittoon, oil lamp, brass pot, and other brass products. She described the industry as an important part of Sri Lanka's traditional culture.

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