Sri Lanka Apparel
Ever since the first export of shirts to Russia in 1965, the apparel industry in Sri Lanka has not looked back. Year on year the industry continues to be one of the largest contributors to Sri Lanka’s GDP and accounts for nearly half of the island’s total exports. Further, the industry provides a means of employment to nearly 350,000 people directly and twice as many indirectly. These employment figures make up around 15% of the nation’s workforce. Few industries in the nation have done as successful a job in providing a means of sustenance to rural and urban communities in the country as the apparel industry.
Sri Lanka is among the top apparel producing countries in the world relative to its population due to a multitude of reasons. While productivity and quality are Sri Lanka’s hallmark, its reputation as a no sweatshop, ethical environment for a highly educated multi-cultural workforce make it a strategic partner for some of the world’s leading brands.
The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020 set alarm bells ringing throughout boardrooms across the apparel industry. This industry that had formed the backbone of Sri Lanka’s economy for the last few decades was faced with its biggest challenge so far. Despite setbacks in April and May of 2020 that saw the country’s apparel exports fall by 82% and 49% month on month compared to 2019, the industry was able to rally by August to recommence the work after the first lockdown on the strict guidelines given by the Government and Health Authorities in the region, and as such were able to continue to work in accordance with country guidelines and thereby reduced its month on month deficit 12% in August, and control the annual cumulative decline to 24% .
However, despite the resilience the industry has shown, Covid-19 has reared its ugly head once again. This time around it targeted the most vulnerable segment of our industry, that is, our people. We at the Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF) are appalled at the outright attacks directed at the young men and women that form the crux of the apparel industry. The reality of living in a world plagued by a pandemic is that people will be afflicted with the disease. To singlehandedly lay blame at the hands of the people that represent one industry due to the presence of positive cases is reprehensible and a notion that must be rejected from the highest office of government to the individuals that make up society at large. If not for the young women and men who represent the apparel industry, the economy of this Isle of Apparel would not be the same, particularly in a Covid-19 world that has dealt killer blows to economies across the planet.
Further, JAAF finds the insinuation that Sri Lankan manufacturers run factories with sub-par working conditions that do not prioritize worker safety and wellbeing, baseless and an attempt by individuals to slander the image of the industry as a whole. We have witnessed firsthand the lengths to which our manufacturers have gone to ensure social distancing and adequate safety mechanisms are adhered to within workplaces. Across the board, our members are willing to showcase these steps to any individual who wishes to witness the adaptation of safe workplace principles in a Covid-19 world. However, the reality of operating in a labour intensive industry in a world that is plagued by the spread of a pandemic is that there is a reasonable risk of transmission in any workplace.
We have learned first-hand the risk of transmission that any workplace has in this new normal and urge all industries to test, trace, and isolate cases of Covid-19 where possible. Further, we encourage all stakeholders in society to stand by the people within our industry as we battle through unprecedented circumstances. We will make mistakes and we will learn from them. That is the reality of living through times the world has not seen before.
We implore that patients inflicted with a disease are not stigmatized. The patients tested positive of Covid-19 are no different to those diagnosed with any other disease. These are not criminals. These are not outcasts. These are people that have formed the backbone of our economy for decades. As the apparel industry engages in widespread testing unseen across any other industry in Sri Lanka, we appeal to the public to respect and to stand by us and our people.