More importantly, the country’s economy rests to a very large part on the shoulders of women. The Sri Lankan economy’s main foreign exchange earners used to be tea, rubber and coconut cultivation for export. Apart from these commercial crops, paddy (rice) cultivation has been the mainstay of the rural economy. Women’s labour plays an important role here, but in most instances is not taken into account.
The traditional economic pattern has completely changed during the last 10-15 years. Remittances from Sri Lankans employed in the Middle Eastern countries are now the no.1 net foreign exchange earner and women constitute more than 80% of this work-force. In earning this money, women have to go undergo a great deal of hardship.
Firstly, even to leave Sri Lanka for these jobs, they are exploited by the so-called employment agencies. Sometimes they charge Rs.30-40,000 (£3-4,000) to send a woman abroad for a housemaid’s job. But the real trauma only starts after they reach the country and start the job. The women have no fixed hours of work, proper health care facilities etc. They are at the mercy of their employers.
This situation is not only limited to housemaids. Recently a Sri Lankan employee of a garment factory in Saudi Arabia was suspended from work. The other workers, mostly women, walked out in solidarity, though they were not organised in a union. All of them were instantly dismissed. The Sri Lankan authorities took no action to protect these workers on the pretext that striking was illegal in Saudi Arabia. The actual reason was that the Sri Lankan authorities did not want to offend the feudal rulers and big business in the Saudi kingdom.
There have been numerous other instances where women employees have been victimised, beaten, sexually abused and even killed. Most women are afraid to divulge the incidents due to the stigma attached to them.
Even when they are reported, little or nothing is done by the Sri Lankan government but in February this year it had to intervene to bring back about 200 Sri Lankan women from Lebanon. They had were stranded after being dismissed by their employers after just 3-4 months employment. They had not been paid their salaries and a considerable number arrived in wheelchairs, showing the trauma they had undergone at the hands of their employers or agencies.
The tea plantations in Sri Lanka account for two thirds of all plantations and employ a very large number of women but almost all in unskilled or semi-skilled work such as plucking tea-leaves, sweeping and collecting tea dust etc. Up to mid-1980 women workers were discriminated against, receiving lower wages than men for the same type of work. Although that has been formally remedied, they still work in semi-slave conditions - comprising illiteracy, malnutrition and improper sanitation. Almost all plantation workers are organised in trade unions but the number of women holding positions in them is negligible and they have not taken up specific issues affecting women workers.
The garment industry, which has spread throughout the country during the last 10 years, is another sector where a large number of women are employed - constituting about 80% of the work-force and occupying the lowest grades. The basic salary of a machine operator is between Rs.2,500 and Rs.3,500 - very low by comparison with other comparable vocations and with the magnitude of the income and profit of these enterprises. This industry is hugely invested in by foreign businesses simply because of the greater possibilities of exploiting an educated work-force.
Although Sri Lanka has a relatively strong trade union tradition, the garment sector does not allow trade union rights. These workers have still not been organised and the left movement has not been able to fill this vacuum.
There are several ’Free Trade Zones’ (or Export Promotion Zones) in the country where foreign investment has concentrated, originally mainly in the garment...
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