Sri Lanka: Women toil and suffer

Workers’ movement must take up their cause

It is not an exaggeration to say that women are the most oppressed and exploited people in Sri Lankan society. They shoulder the bulk of the economy, but they get very little in return for their contribution. The three main sectors of income generation in the economy are literally in the hands of women. Women are the main workforce in the traditional tea plantations, garment/apparel factories and the expatriate labour i.e. those employed in the Middle Eastern countries and some other Asian countries such as Singapore and Hong Kong

Plantation workers consisting mainly of Tamils of Indian origin are the most exploited section of the community from the time of British imperialism. Most of the actual tea pickers are women and they are the lowest paid workers in the country. Their daily basic salary is only about 3 dollars. They can earn one more dollar provided they work 25 days a month. This is not enough to sustain a family for a week, let alone a month. It is the main reason malnutrition, especially among children under 5 years, is most prevalent in the tea plantation sector.

The garment/apparel sector which began to thrive in the main towns from the late 1970s was the most preferred job for young women and the income they sent home contributed considerably to raise the living conditions of rural households. It also helped young women to enjoy a kind of freedom hitherto not permitted to them. However the situation has changed now with a number of factories being closed down in the face of the economic crises in the US and Western Europe and the withdrawal of the GSP+ tariff concession by the EU.

In the factories remaining in operation, the bosses try to impose vicious working conditions in violation of the existing labour laws of the country. The salaries of these workers have been static for the last 6 to 7 years. Even under very difficult conditions these female workers have engaged in heroic struggles and won several battles which will undoubtedly go down in the history of the working class.

Sri Lankan women employed in the Middle East and Asia mainly as housemaids are also a very much battered section. 48.7% of the country’s foreign exchange comes from money remitted by Sri Lankans employed abroad – a large part from these young women. However they face numerous hardships; they are subject to sexual assault, physical beatings and forced labour at the hands of their employers and recruitment agents. Rizana Nafik from Sri Lanka went to work in Saudi Arabia at the age of 17. She was under age when she was held responsible for the death of a baby in her care. This January she was executed by beheading. This example is the most extreme amongst a catalogue of dangers that face women workers in the Middle East.

In Sri Lanka, there is an increasing wave of crimes against women. Newspapers are full of reports of violent attacks against women and other types of crimes against them. In one rural area in the Ratnapura district alone, 17 women have been murdered during the last four years. Although a new law against domestic violence has been enacted it is very prevalent in the country and the public has almost taken it for granted it seems.

Sri Lanka had the world’s first female prime minister and also a female executive president. Nevertheless the situation of women in the country is appalling. The NGOs who have led the women’s movement of the country up to now have failed to change this situation. The Left movement and the trade unions should take this task into their hands without delay

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