The power women of the apparel industry who drive Sri Lanka’s economy

March 8, 2019 | Written by DailyFT

South Asia is the fastest growing region in the world according to a 2018 study conducted by the World Bank. However, employment growth has not increased in proportion to the fast GDP growth experienced in the region.

In fact, employment rates have declined across the region mainly due to social and cultural perceptions, with women accounting for most of this decline. Today marks International Women’s Day– an apt time to look at female labour participation and women’s empowerment in Sri Lanka. According to studies conducted, Sri Lanka experienced a 1% year-on-year female employment decline in the decade between 2005 and 2015.

However, while social stigma relating to female labour participation still persists within the country, the female labour force makes a significant contribution across many industries, ranging from domestic labour to healthcare.

One of the largest industries that utilise a strong female workforce is the apparel sector, which provides direct employment opportunities to a substantial number of women in Sri Lanka (approx. 300,000 women), resulting in an inflow of over $ 5.2 b in export revenue in 2018, becoming the first industry in the island to cross the $ 5 billion mark.

Apparel exports account for the largest number of Sri Lankan exports and thus are the highest contributor to the GDP growth of Sri Lanka. However, according to a study conducted by the Asian Development Bank, social attitudes and influences in Sri Lanka are not in favour of women seeking employment in the apparel industry.

Often called the ‘juki girls’, female employees who work in this industry do not receive the respect and empowerment that they strongly deserve, despite the immense contribution they make to our country’s economy and our collective standard of living.

The study also found that even if women showed interest in joining the apparel industry, parental attitudes and influencers such as husbands, siblings, teachers and religious leaders discouraged them from doing so, due to the negative social perceptions held regarding apparel sector employees. These influencers perceived women in the apparel sector as being unskilled, and sited erosion of culture and traditions and sexual exploitation of women as reasons for discouraging women from joining the industry.

Speaking on the subject, Sri Lanka Apparel Exporters Association Chairman Rehan Lekhani agreed with the findings of the ADB study, stating that the apparel industry’s own research and observations have shown the existence of strong negative perceptions of women in the apparel sector despite their immense contribution to the nation.

Lekhani stated that female employees in the apparel industry receive comprehensive training on the job, including financial workshops and several other programs that give them a profound knowledge of the industry as a whole. “We thrive on female participation in our industry and over the years we have taken steps to ensure that our female employees in particular are empowered and equipped with the right skills and knowledge to succeed in their professional and personal lives,” he said.

Apart from gaining well-rounded industry-specific knowledge, female employees are also encouraged by the apparel industry and given support to propel their own dreams and aspirations into a reality.

A large number of female apparel workers (many of whom did not engage in work outside the home prior to joining the apparel industry) have saved their income and invested it into bettering the lives of their children, families and communities. They have achieved this through providing better education for their children, increasing their families’ standard of living by providing better healthcare, access to technology and purchasing vehicles, to building houses and providing dowries for their siblings.

Through the skills they acquire from their daily work in the apparel industry, they are also able to foster their entrepreneurial spirit to embark on small businesses such as tailoring services, restaurants and transport services. These smart financial decisions are just a few examples of what these women have been able to achieve with the support of the apparel industry.

While the industry itself and its major stakeholders are aware of the contribution that these women make and see them as significant assets to the industry, the social stigma associated with these women and their affiliation to the apparel industry still affects them. As a result of this negative stigma, their vast contribution to the industry and by default, the Sri Lankan economy are not appreciated by society. The social circle of these women, namely parents, siblings, husbands, significant others and teachers do not seem to be aware of the contribution made by the hands of these hardworking and determined women. Almost all of them are unaware that the apparel industry is the second largest foreign exchange earner for the country owed in large part to the hard work and dedication of their female family members.

This results in these female workers being undermined and their immense contribution to our country goes undervalued and unrecognised. As active contributors to the prosperity of the Sri Lankan economy, they still do not receive the respect and appreciation that they deserve.

The apparel industry is aware of this situation and organisations within the industry are firmly working towards shattering this stigma. In order to address this issue, JAAF launched ‘Matai Mage Ratatai’ – a campaign in partnership with the Sri Lanka Apparel Exporters’ Association (SLAEA) and the Export Development Board (EDB).The national movement aims to change public opinion and eradicate these falsifications that relate to the female workforce within the apparel industry and further encourage these women and their communities to see the value of the employment opportunity offered, and also to recognise their immense contribution to our country’s economy.

Breaking away from stereotypes that have been ingrained in our society for decades will no doubt be a challenge, but there is hope that this will become a reality. Educating the public on the contribution of female employees in the apparel industry, who are the silent drivers of our economy, is crucial.

Being the largest export earner in Sri Lanka bringing in $ 5 billion, JAAF together with its partners and support from the entire apparel industry is hopeful that this campaign will showcase the positive ripple effects to our economy, which would not be possible without this hardworking female workforce.

(Source: Sri Lanka Apparel Exporters Association)