C. Rochana Cooray
Patti McGill Peterson Center for International and Intercultural Studies
Sri Lanka is home to thirteen Export Production Zones (EPZs). These were set up post trade liberalization in 1977 after which Sri Lanka has expanded its export market to become a leader in the Global Apparel industry. Export Production Zones however, have a reputation for being a safe haven for the exploitation of workers and the deterioration of traditional social values. I was interested in identifying the confluence of factors that made the Sri Lankan EPZ experience different to that of other countries.
In Sri Lanka I visited two different garment factories, one within an EPZ, and one outside of the EPZs. I spoke to both the management and workers of these factories and was able to conduct a small survey in the factory located within the EPZ. The survey contained both qualitative and quantitative questions with regards to their workplace experience.
Both the factories that I visited were in excellent condition and the general atmosphere across the production lines was light and pleasant. The strict adherence to labor laws was evident from the safety equipment and careful instructions posted everywhere. Conversations with the workers confirmed that adequate breaks and provisions such as maternity leave were granted as appropriate. The minimum wage rate in both factories were much higher than the legal minimum wage.
Much of the literature that I read prior to my research spoke about discrimination and sexual exploitation of women within EPZs. However, all of the women I spoke to confirmed that they had the same opportunities as men, and that promotions were entirely merit based. According to my survey 50% of the participants had faced sexual harassment within the workplace. However, all of them explicitly stated that there was a reliable authority to which they could report these instances to. Both these factories were situated in rural areas and employed a majority of workers from the surrounding area. This eliminated a lot of safety concerns for female workers. While they acknowledged the deterioration of social values, many young girls that I spoke to looked at their jobs as a way of improving their standards of living and opening up opportunities for themselves.
One of the main reasons for such good conditions within Sri Lankan EPZs is the relatively scarce labor force. Sri Lanka has an overall literacy rate of 91.2% and as such, has a relatively small low-skilled labor market when compared with countries such as China and Bangladesh. As such employers are compelled to take very good care of their workers. Unfortunately I could not learn anything much about labor unions, and neither of the factories I visited had labor unions within them. According to the management, unionization was allowed but highly discouraged and there was not much enthusiasm towards joining a union among the workers that I spoke to.
While I understand that my positionality and other factors may have affected my interaction with the workers, and as a result my findings; I can say with confidence that the Sri Lankan EPZ experience is much better than it is in many other countries that are home to EPZ eclaves. The most convincing piece of evidence for my statement is the last question on my survey which read: Are you proud of your job? To which all of the participants answered “Yes”.