Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?
An increasingly globalized manufacturing industry has embraced outsourcing as a strategy for maintaining competitiveness in a rapidly growing and ever-changing market. In the last two years, the number of outsourcing agencies has rapidly increased in Sri Lanka. They have mushroomed to fulfill investors’ demands for labor. However, these companies and investors’ understanding and compliance of labor laws and legal procedures have not kept pace with this growth. The Sri Lankan government has been reluctant to focus on worker's concerns and instead have prioritized looking after the interests of investors, who provide valuable foreign currency into Sri Lanka's troubled economy.
The garment industry in Sri Lanka employs and estimated 250,000 workers and brings in about 4 billion USD making it the second largest source of foreign investment. Eighty-two percent of these workers are women and many of these women are migrants from rural areas who find it difficult to demand a living wage without any support system in an unfamiliar environment. The weak labor markets, where unemployment and marginal, intermittent informal sector jobs are the norm for these unskilled workers, make the FTZs virtually the only source of regular work available to young rural women. FTZ factories mostly produce garments but other items such as gloves, toys and electrical parts are also being manufactured. There are about 14 FTZs that accommodate over 500 factories in Sri Lanka. Workers in the FTZs, particularly women, face a set of sub-standard working conditions including, sexual harassment, under-payment of wages, poor safety, excessive hours of work, harsh discipline, lack of career advancement, suppression of trade union rights, sub-standard accommodation arrangements and social stigmatization. Further, the demographic of these workers -between the ages of 18 – 35 years, female, living alone (in rented and unfamiliar places) and highly unorganized- makes them more susceptible to accept these precarious conditions for lack of alternatives.
The traditional structures, like trade unions and women’s organizations, that workers use to uphold their rights and seek redress for violations, have failed to reach out to FTZ workers. The many restrictions imposed on organizing in the FTZ and local legislations have made this situation even worse. However, growing consciousness among FTZ workers for the need for greater worker protection and social security reforms began in 2011 triggered by a failed pension bill that would have benefited factory owners at the expense of workers.
At the same time, another growing trend is generating an even more vulnerable group. The same outsourcing firms functioning in the FTZs are increasingly outsourcing more menial and informal tasks (i.e. cleaning and food services) to employment companies which have even lower levels of regulation. They have low pay with no job stability or benefits, and as a result, face increased risk and danger from work-related accidents. For example, the salaries of these workers depend on the service agent, and their daily work hours range from 10 to 14 hours while only being paid a meager salary of about Rs. 250.00 ($2) to Rs. 450.00 ($4) per day. In most situations, the employer who obtains their services pays the agent about Rs. 500.00 ($ 4.25) to Rs. 850.00 ($8) per worker, and thus the revenue of the manpower agency can be two or more times the wages the worker receives. The workers are paid salaries only for days they work.
Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!
Ashila, a former FTZ factory worker herself, has established the “Stand-Up” labor movement as an alternative to the traditional top-down and male-dominated trade union movements that have failed to organize the vast majority of FTZ women workers. Her approach moves beyond basic protest against labor violations and instead focuses on how workers can collectively enhance their own social security needs and become more resilient by pooling their own resources. The self-sustaining social security system called “Shahana,” functions as an insurance system and compensates injured and unfairly treated workers while also allowing workers to borrow loans for emergency situations and aids them in pursuing legal action. This insurance system is funded through workers’ subscription and interest earned from the emergency loans. The contributors or ‘members’ become connected through this common objective and begin to see themselves as powerful actors to change the often dire working conditions they face. Breaking all barriers, Ashila has built a women-led movement around a vital social security issue affecting the laborers. Ashila is also working to expand this social security network to provide legal aid and protection to members who come forward to challenge unfair labor treatment. Ashila has taken this approach to support an emerging group of unorganized workers who are exploited by sub-contractors.