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Beyond the Shelters

By: Uadaya Sivakumar

Emerge Lanka Financial Officer

After leaving the shelters, a majority of the girls are either willing to work in the free trade zone or are compelled to work in there due to lack of education. There are also many other reasons why these girls go work in the free trade zone. For this post, I would like to highlight issues/problems that female factory workers face in the free trade zone. I hope this will help Emerge to empower our girls to encounter these issues, or if possible, perhaps Emerge can take the initiative to go over these challenges.

Garment factories design their workshop layouts to optimize the space. They will place the factory’s machinery in narrow spaces, making workers less comfortable and work with less privacy. The work floors are like big halls with fitted fans and lights. These floors do not provide sufficient air or lights for workers; however, even in these conditions, workers are still expected to wear overcoats and caps (sometimes masks) during work hours. Since the uniforms are made out of hard material, women are affected by skin diseases. Further, when workers want to use the toilet, they need to get their cards ticked by their supervisor; these cards show how many times workers use the toilets. If any worker gets more ticks than what they are allowed, they will either have a certain amount deducted from their wages or get a warning from their supervisors; due to this practice, workers hesitate to use the toilets, which can lead to health issues.

Every garment factory’s employees are forced to work long hours that include night shifts. A majority of factories do not provide transportation even after night shifts; therefore, workers need to return to their home/boarding houses using public transportation which is unpunctual. This causes the workers to be more tired, more stressed and more vulnerable, as to get to the public buses, they need to walk a long way from the factories at night.

Mostly, factory workers live in boarding rooms. Normally, these boarding rooms are very small and there is the tendency to share rooms with other roommates due to cost of the rent. They will only cook one time daily due to time and money constraints; due to this practice, the workers do not get fresh food or have access to good nutrition, leading them to suffer in both the short and the long term.

Further to the issues above, there are other issues: low wages, closed supervision, unrealistic (massive) targets, and reduction of wages also happen. However, the most dangerous problem faced by these women and young girls is the sexual harassment and exploitation; problems which every 60 seconds worldwide, 3 out of 4 women are effected by. In Sri Lanka, there are hundreds and hundreds of women affected by sexual harassment a year.

When we look at the free trade zone specifically, female factory workers are more vulnerable due to their workplace structure, both by traveling to/from their place of work and by male supervisors. Not only this, but also because these women are isolated from their normal life, they do not receive enough love and affection from others. Many men use this want of affection to their advantage, and cheat these girls in the name of love and marriage. Ultimately, these men drop these girls off at brothels. After that, these girls will end up doing sex work at these brothels, not only impacting these innocent girls’ lives, but also our country’s culture and humanity.

I am confident that one day we will able to resolve problems such as transportation, nutrition/food, accommodation, lower wages, other infrastructure facilities, but who will take the responsibility of addressing that our women have been sexually and mentally harassed and exploited at these garment factories?

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