The Stand Up Movement in Sri Lanka

Our member Dushy has co-written a blog post about Ashila Dandeniya, an inspiring woman working for the rights of garment sector employees, and The Stand Up Movement in Sri Lanka.

Founder’s story

Ashila Dandeniya’s was first exposed to Katunayake Industrial Zone soon after finishing school. Her first job was as a Quality Checker for a top garment factory. Ashila’s position was unfairly terminated as a result of a conflict, however, with the support of Right 2 Life Human Rights Centre, she represented herself at the Labour Tribunal at the age of 22 and was offered a settlement amount of 1 year’s salary. This was the beginning of her activist journey to fight for the rights of garment workers in Sri Lanka.

Although she returned to work in another garment factory, before long she left to become a part of ALARM, a subsidiary of Oxfam which worked on projects involving labour rights. She worked as a programme coordinator for 5 years on projects concerning living wage, living condition, and freedom of association. By the end of ALARM assignment, Ashila had experience, expertise, and support among fellow workers in the garment industry. So, with just 12 members, Ashila initiated The Standup Movement to continue the work she’s passionate about.

The Stand Up Movement

The purpose of SUM is to educate the workers in the importance of taking initiative and taking on leadership roles in the factories, to be involved in their worker’s rights and to provide a safe space for the workers to discuss their problems.
In the beginning, SUM focused mainly on creating a dialogue with garment sector workers to understand their concerns and expectations. It emerged out of discussions that workers desired to watch films, an activity banned in most boarding houses due to the electricity usage, as an opportunity to engage with one another. SUM began organizing film screenings which gave SUM the chance to build relationships with workers, gain an insight into their lives and further understand the challenges that they faced.

SUM continued to grow and increase its membership by continuing to hold events for the garment sector workers including a cross-factory cricket tournament between 32 teams that went on for 3 months. It was entirely funded by the workers and resulted in SUM welcoming 250 new members. For a small fee, membership entails donations for the funerals of two family members and access to emergency loans.

Man Sandhi

In 2009, SUM, with the support of Rights Now published ‘Man Sandhi’, a book that included 15 case studies (out of 78 case studies conducted) on how the withdrawal of GSP Plus impacted workers with salary cuts, meal reductions, and the limitation of other essential facilities and provisions factories.
SUM launched the book in the presence of factory owners, international media, NGOs, and workers from various factories to great success. The entire event was organized by the members of SUM and the book written by Ashila herself. As the first publication that discussed the issues from the perspective of the workers, this was a huge step for those in the sector. The acclaim that Ashila received from this publication also continues to raise awareness.

The vision

The vision of SUM is to build a new concept trade union that deviate from traditional methods; a trade union that truly stands for the social security of workers.
SUM believes that traditional trade union methods are presently ineffective, from language and colours they use to strategies they employ to communicate to workers. SUM aims to take a fresh approach in order to achieve a higher participation and is proud of its members who have gone on to take leadership in the field of workers’ rights in their respective factories.

Some of the main challenges that workers face as identified by SUM

– Minimum wage not covering the living wage and the factories justifying this with overtime and incentives.
– Sexual harrassment
– ‘Hidden Cost’— workers doing overtime and not having time for social participation resulting in poor social dignity.
– Working without drinking water, not going to the toilet, and not taking full breaks so that they can achieve targets and make more money.
– Poor diet and as a result suffering from nutritional deficiencies such as Anemia.
– Language and communication problems faced by workers recruited from North and East parts of the island.
– Poor condition of the boarding houses without proper facilities.
– Break-ins at boarding houses.
– Being cheated by vendors.
– Workers consider this as a short term job and therefore less commitment to stand up for rights and make a change.
– Society’s negative attitude towards the factory workers and a general lack of respect from the community.

These issues are incredible damaging to garment sector workers.

Recently, a 23 year-old Tamil speaking female worker committed suicide inside a boarding house on 17th of September after just 3 months of working at the zone. No motive has been identified although the matter has been already closed and declared unsuspicious.

SUM believes that it is important to understand how safe the zone is for these workers who leave their families behind to come and survive on their own. Furthermore, it is vital to understand the necessity of providing a solid support system to the workers to overcome both personal as well as work-related challenges.

Ashila will be speaking at a screening of Made in Sri Lanka happening on 4th January in Colombo, at which she will be discussing SUM’s progress and current projects. Get in contact to find out more details of the event!

This article was written by member of The Circle, Dushy Rabinath and Shyama Basnayaka. Dushy lives and works in Colombo and is passionate about the rights of women.

Photo credit: Dushy and her family in Sri Lanka

#WomenEmpoweringWomen #OneReasonWhyImAGlobalFeminist


Interview with Josie George, founder of social entreprise AMMA Sri Lanka

 

“I would rather sell less at a fair price and stand by my values”

“Mother made, naturally dyed, handcrafted” are the values of AMMA Sri Lanka, a social enterprise founded by the British couple Josie and Warren in the Sri Lankan highlands. Josie’s qualification and expertise in the field of textile together with the local charity Child Action Lanka helped AMMA to become a successful ethical label that supports women in the community. The Circle member Dushy, who lives in Sri Lanka, caught up with Josie to talk about ethical values in business, the living wage and natural dyes.

At The Circle, we work on projects that create jobs for women and help them start businesses. The unemployment rate in Sri Lanka is much higher among women than among men and most of your employees are women. Why is employing women important to you?

The high unemployment rate amongst women in Sri Lanka, particularly mothers living on Sri Lanka’s tea estates, was the initial problem we wanted to address by starting AMMA. Working with women is important to us because we see them as key change makers within their community; by employing and training mothers we are directly impacting their children and families. It is much more sustainable and inspiring for children if they experience their mother grow in confidence, earn a fair wage and learn new skills as a solution to breaking out of poverty. It also makes sense for us to employ women —all of our women have shown a great desire to work and contribute to the family finances. These are hard working women who still complete their household responsibilities before and after work. Bringing these women together provides them with a space outside of the home to connect and support each other.

You pay a living wage to your female employees. How does it impact on the product’s prices and organisation?

Yes, our starting wage is double that of the starting wage of other local industries in Hill Country, such as tea picking or garment factory work. I believe that it gives our Amma makers value for the skills they have obtained with us and it adds value to our products. It does increase the price of what we make but I would rather sell less at a fair price and stand by my values than get swayed by the few who don’t understand our ethics and what handmade is truly worth.

AMMA is a social entreprise. How do you reinvest back into the community?

AMMA has been running for one year, which we view as a pilot year. This has given us time to explore different models of working and become accustomed to the particular needs of the tea picking communities. We broke even during our pilot year and once we start to turn a profit we plan to reinvest that money back into our new partner NGO Tea Leaf Trust who work extensively with young people living on Sri Lanka’s tea estates through their centers of professional development.

What do you have to do to make sure the product meets and end-to-end eco-friendly approach, within a fair and safe environment for your employees?

For us, as a young start up it means constantly working towards improving our supply chain. We have just started working with a women’s cooperative in the North of Sri Lanka who weave all our raw unbleached cotton fabric. This means we employ more women in the process of making our products and we have greater knowledge of where our fabric comes from. We dye this fabric naturally using plants (eucalyptus leaves, madder root, indigo, Nelli fruit) and food waste (onion skins, avocado stones, pomegranate skins) some of which we forage locally or collect from hotels and cafes. Using plant dyes means its safer for our employees, safer for our customers and doesn’t pollute water ways. It is also a good way to repurpose waste produce before composting. Our employees work in a nice environment, with child care provided by Child Action Lanka, a local NGO. They work 9 am – 1 pm whilst the children are in school. We pay them a fair wage for their work, and because of this we have many women each month asking if we have vacancies.

Can you tell us about the women you employ and what they like about working at AMMA?

The women we employ are currently aged between 24 and 27 and are all mothers to young children. They live on Sri Lanka’s tea estates in line rooms, which are simple concrete structures comprising of two rooms. These buildings haven’t changed much since the British built them at the height of the tea industry, when people of Tamil Indian origin were brought over to work on the plantations. The estates are hard places to live in, with 80% of tea estate men being alcoholics and 83% of women suffering from domestic violence (of which 20% is sexual). The women we employ have decided against working as tea pluckers, all have married young. Some had not worked previously and other worked at garment factories across Sri Lanka.

The whole process of extracting colours from natural sources sounds interesting and challenging. What is your drive to persist in order to give us an ethical and sustainable output?

Natural colour is a delicate ever-changing medium to work with; so many factors contribute to the final outcome —water quality, light, diversity of plant matter, time and the mordant used. It takes a lot of patience and experimentation to achieve the colors you want. The difference in our dyeing practice when we started a year ago to now is huge. Day by day it feels like we grow more aware of the process and the various elements that need to harmonize to produce the final outcome. The drive and patience to build a social enterprise using natural dyes comes from a belief that true sustainability is growing, from our desire to harvest and cultivate our colour from the land and from the prospect of how many jobs this can offer to a region with high unemployment levels. We aren’t there yet, these things take time and my belief is that you just need to start somewhere and the rest you’ll work out along the way.

Written by Dushy Rabinath, a member of The Circle with an interest in sustainable fashion and The Lawyers Circle’s Living Wage project.