In conversation with Ashila Dandeniya, Founder of Standup Movement Lanka and labour rights activist for garment factory workers in Free Trade Zones
Fabric of Change
July 6, 2022
How did you get involved in advocating for the rights of workers in the free trade zones (FTZs)?
My journey began in 2001 when I started working at a well-known apparel manufacturing company in the Katunayake Free Trade Zone and was recruited as a final checker, someone who is responsible for ensuring the quality of the garments.
I lived in a boarding house while I worked at the factory. There I began to understand the problems faced by workers in the garment industry, how vulnerable they were and the inequalities they faced. Most of the workers received minimum wage and depended on overtime work to make ends meet. They had extremely poor living and working conditions, and they faced sexual harassment by male supervisors at the factory. I found that there was no relief available to workers and it was a very hostile working environment.
Like many of my coworkers, I was harassed by one of my supervisors. Because of this, I resigned and joined another apparel company. Though the working environment appeared better, the fundamental issues faced by workers remained the same. At the new company, I joined an informal association known as ‘Sevaka Sabhava’, which was set up to address workers’ grievances. However, the group only addressed superficial issues like how the company was going to celebrate Avurudhu (new year). More serious issues like insufficient wages, unpaid overtime, working hours and harassment remained unaddressed. As a representative of this association, I raised a complaint about workers’ wages and brought it to the attention of the senior management. I received a hostile response and was subsequently dismissed.
An organization called the Right 2 Life Human Rights Centre helped me file a complaint against the company for unfair dismissal. I represented myself at the labour tribunal and was offered a settlement of one year’s salary as compensation. This is when I realized that workers could represent themselves at the labour tribunal without a lawyer.
Even after I went back to work at another garment factory, I was unsatisfied. I realized that rather than working in a factory, I could do something more substantial to help others in similar situations. This was the beginning of my journey in advocating for the rights of garment workers in Sri Lanka, and I started the Stand Up Movement in 2008 to protect and promote the rights of workers in the FTZ.
What are the main challenges facing garment factory workers?
There are two types of workers in the FTZs; formally recruited workers who receive monthly wages from employers, and informally recruited workers employed by manpower agencies who depend on daily wages to meet their needs. The majority of women working in the FTZ are young and live in privately owned, poorly built boarding houses that lack basic facilities, with many individuals cooking and sleeping in one room. The Stand Up Movement is committed to protecting and promoting the rights of workers in the FTZs, especially during the COVID-19 crisis with many experiencing extremely adverse circumstances. We work to provide them with support and relief in terms of legal aid, awareness and a support system.
Due to the pandemic, formally recruited workers have either not received their monthly wages or received reduced wages. Many find themselves unable to pay for their food and rent, and the informally recruited group of workers are facing dire circumstances with no way to meet their daily needs. During the first wave of the pandemic, factory workers faced cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, with restrictions on their freedom of movement, right to fair wages, right to safe working conditions, and faced discrimination based on their economic and social status.
What does the Stand Up Movement do to support workers?
At the Stand Up Movement, we provide a solid support system for women and help them by taking a rights-based approach. We guide female workers in the FTZ to recognize the recourse they have against the injustices, harassment and abuse they face. We offer them free legal support and empower them to speak up and take action regardless of the financial and societal barriers that stand in their way.
We also work with workers engaged in sex work by raising awareness of associated risks, educating them on sexual and reproductive health, and providing them with legal aid. Due to the COVID-19 crisis, many workers struggling to meet their basic needs work part-time as sex workers to raise extra income. Many of them are not engaged in sex work out of personal choice, but necessity and desperation and an urgent need for income to support themselves and their children.
Sex work is prohibited in Sri Lanka, but illegal massage centres operate under the guise of Ayurvedic spas without valid licenses. Workers from the FTZs recruited to work at these massage centres are often young, vulnerable and isolated from their families, and easily coerced. Once engaged in sex work, women are stigmatized, marginalized, face social exclusion and are left powerless.
Although many sex workers are unaware, they risk arrest under the Vagrants Ordinance, and now they can also be arrested for violating COVID-19 restrictions. We recently dealt with an incident involving a girl who was recruited as a sex worker from the FTZs. She was arrested by the police and taken to court, after which she faced intense stigmatization and social exclusion by her family and community.
What personal challenges have you faced along the way?
During a brief period after I left factory work, I was engaged in activism. My father was killed during the JVP insurrection, and my mother suffered significant post-traumatic stress. She was extremely anxious about my engagement in advocacy work. This took a heavy mental toll on her.
My marriage also suffered as a consequence of my work. While my husband was initially supportive, he later became unhappy with the level of exposure I received. In 2012, I received an Ashoka Fellowship – which is given to individuals and groups making systemic change in their communities. After I received the award, he started pulling away from me and began opposing my work. By 2018, I had separated from my husband and I am now a single mother of two children. Both my children and I have sacrificed a lot for me to be able to continue my advocacy work.
While my activism has created better working conditions for women factory workers, it has not been without great personal cost.
Human rights defenders are those working tirelessly to defend victims of human rights violations, ensuring their access to redress and remedy. They are the eyes, ears and voices of local communities and play a vital role in safeguarding freedom, respect, equality and dignity.
With support from the Government of Sweden, the Business and Human Rights in Asia: Promoting Responsible Business Practices through Regional Partnerships project works with governments, businesses, national human rights institutions and civil society organizations to promote responsible business practices in the region. The project aims to strengthen the capacity of human rights defenders to help them raise their voices, access remedies and be more effective in defending the rights of local communities.
** This interview has been translated into English from Sinhalese and edited for clarity and brevity.