Workers at a garments factory in Sandalankawa, Sri Lanka. If decades of state intervention and labour-friendly legislation made Sri Lanka’s relative success possible, what are the lessons for us today? Photo: Pacific Press Agency / IMAGO
Workers at a garments factory in Sandalankawa, Sri Lanka. If decades of state intervention and labour-friendly legislation made Sri Lanka’s relative success possible, what are the lessons for us today? Photo: Pacific Press Agency / IMAGO

Where workers stand in Sri Lanka’s garment-industry boom

‘Garments without Guilt?’ sheds light on labour ethics and narratives associated with exceptionalism in Sri Lanka’s apparel industry
The global garment industry is no stranger to scandal – the 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse in Savar, Bangladesh, is perhaps the most obvious and egregious example. Two decades earlier, reports of child labour and other abuses brought widespread condemnation of "sweatshop" conditions in factories, located primarily in the Global South, producing cheap clothing for markets in Europe and North America. At the time, consumers as well as labour advocates mobilised public opinion, threatened boycotts of individual countries and pressured retailers to make changes. In an effort to contain reputational damage, brands introduced corporate social-responsibility programmes and ethical codes of conduct. Yet tensions between the largely Euro-American consumption of cheap clothing and the conditions of labour that make such consumption possible are not easily resolved; they surface with some regularity, even if in reconfigured forms. Most recently, the devastating effects of the Covid-19 pandemic – thousands of workers summarily dismissed without pay, factories shut down overnight, and the "refusal" of retailers to meet key contractual obligations – resurrected concerns about global governance regimes in the apparel supply chain. The logic that labour friendly legislation constitutes an obstacle to growth or even the source of crisis is one that Sri Lankan academics have forcefully rejected.

Indeed, in the wake of the pandemic and Sri Lanka's ongoing economic crisis, employers are pushing for the government to reform labour laws so as to make the country more "investor-friendly"

Like many other countries, Sri Lanka imposed a strict lockdown at the start of the pandemic – in its case running from March to May 2020. Yet, as in other supplier countries, the garment industry – Sri Lanka's biggest exporter, accounting for around 7 percent of the country's USD 84-billion economy as of 2020 – was allowed to restart operations in April. Not surprisingly, a garment factory became the locus of a major Covid outbreak. Events followed a predictable script: workers were denied wages, subjected to intimidation, indiscriminately forced into quarantine by military forces that often treated them like criminals, and stigmatised socially by their association with the industry. Overall, the pandemic had a devastating impact on the 300,000 female garment workers, mostly rural migrants, who toil within and outside Sri Lanka's Export Processing Zones. Meanwhile, apparel brands, retailers and manufacturers continued to profit while cutting costs at every level, further endangering worker health and undermining their job security and income. Attacks on trade unions and a refusal to include worker representatives in shaping Covid-response measures also exacerbated the crisis. Indeed, in the wake of the pandemic and Sri Lanka's ongoing economic crisis, employers are pushing for the government to reform labour laws so as to make the country more "investor-friendly".
These events ruptured, temporarily at least, Sri Lanka's reputation for relatively ethical, exploitation-free production, which stands in sharp contrast to that of its neighbour Bangladesh, whose long history of factory fires and building collapses continues to haunt its national image. In her recent book Garments without Guilt? Global Labour and Ethical Codes in Sri Lankan Apparels, Kanchana N Ruwanpura turns her theoretical and empirical focus on the industry in Sri Lanka, a country that has largely escaped the stigma associated with apparel production in the rest of the Global South. The question mark in the title signals the tensions and ambiguities inherent in efforts to produce garments without generating a corresponding sense of guilt, at least under the current conditions of global capitalism. 
Strength in union
Garments without Guilt? is framed by two broad sets of queries: First, what accounts for Sri Lankan's apparent exceptionalism? How has the Sri Lankan state and apparel industry crafted itself as an "ethical" sourcing destination? And what, for that matter, does it mean for the apparel sector to be "ethical"? Second, Ruwanpura poses a set of questions on the voice and agency of labour. How does labour fit into the stories that are told about Sri Lanka's success? How do workers view ethical trading initiatives, and what was their role in making, deploying or even resisting such codes? These two strands are braided together by a larger question that animates the text. How is it, Ruwanpura muses early on, that "a country can provide seemingly stable and safe factory premises and work conditions, and yet not pay a living wage?" Put differently, what kind of justice do corporate codes of conduct usher in, and in whose eyes are resulting practices ethical? 

Kanchana N Ruwanpura turns her theoretical and empirical focus on the industry in Sri Lanka, a country that has largely escaped the stigma associated with apparel production in the rest of the Global South.

A geographer by training, Ruwanpara uses fine-grained ethnographic and historical analysis to puncture key narratives associated with Sri Lanka's exceptionalism. Global governance initiatives were "poised for success" in the country, she shows, for reasons that were not entirely to do with the visionary outlook of management, as is usually understood to be the case. Rather, the political context – an educated workforce, advanced social development and a vibrant labour movement – created conditions conducive to the state's receptivity to labour-friendly legislation. More specifically, "labor's ability to negotiate with the state" was crucial to the acceptance of corporate codes of governance. As we are reminded, this was an often violent process, not an outcome to which the state yielded easily. This line of analysis disrupts normative accounts of the benign arrival and implementation of ethical codes, at the behest of benevolent transnational capital, ready to reform and civilise illiberal local practices. 
Ruwanpura makes a persuasive argument for taking local inflexions into account in any analysis of ethical production regimes. Corporate codes of conduct do not simply travel fully formed, to be either vernacularised, resisted or forcibly imposed on recalcitrant or corrupt states, as a conventional script would have it. Instead, global lexicons of ethicality are given meaning and substance through their interpellation into "local" contexts and configurations of power. 
Garments without Guilt?: Global Labour Justice and Ethical Codes in Sri Lankan Apparels by Kanchana N Ruwanpura. Cambridge University Press (2022)
Garments without Guilt?: Global Labour Justice and Ethical Codes in Sri Lankan Apparels by Kanchana N Ruwanpura. Cambridge University Press (2022)
Garments without Guilt's analysis centres labour, bringing our attention back to neglected or "forgotten" histories of labour struggles in the Sri Lankan industry over the decades. As Ruwanpura recounts, the apparel sector's vaunted efficacy in upholding ethical trading and corporate social governance codes was partly due to the "noise, voice and diligence" of its early workers. Collective action – including strikes in the 1980s and 1990s – laid the groundwork for success. That these histories of sometimes violently suppressed struggles are actively written out of normative accounts, in favour of sanitised stories in which enlightened management, the postcolonial state and international capital agree on decent standards of work, is probably no surprise in the current global conjuncture. 

First, what accounts for Sri Lankan's apparent exceptionalism? How has the Sri Lankan state and apparel industry crafted itself as an "ethical" sourcing destination? And what, for that matter, does it mean for the apparel sector to be "ethical"?

Over the past two decades, power relations between retailers and buyers, the relationship of the industry with the government, and the role of the state in relation to the interests of labour have all shifted dramatically. To get a sense of the power relations involved, it is worth noting that of the three major players in the country's apparel sector, only Hirdaramani Garments has a history that predates 1977. Brandix and MAS "took off as small start-ups that now not only are formidable producers in Sri Lanka, but also have a regional and global presence." Ruwanpura remarks that since the state is no longer active in balancing the competing interests of labour and capital, it comes as no surprise that a contested redrafting of investor-friendly employment laws in Sri Lanka has marginalised labour as a constituency. For example, the newly reconstituted National Labour Advisory Council now represents mainly public sector trade unions. Four private sector unions, including unions that represent workers in the Free Trade Zones, have been removed on the directive of the labour minister this year. 
If the outcome of labour struggles is contingent on conditions in often treacherous political terrain, nowhere is this more evident than in the North and East of Sri Lanka, a region the government "opened up" for investment at the formal end of the country's civil war. In a fascinating chapter, Ruwanpura charts the travels of corporate codes under conditions of militarisation and ethnic pacification, reframed as "business for peace." The prevailing discourse imagines a Tamil population grateful for the end of war and availability of jobs, and Tamil women workers as (finally?) poised to empower themselves through industrial work. 

If the outcome of labour struggles is contingent on conditions in often treacherous political terrain, nowhere is this more evident than in the North and East of Sri Lanka.

Ruwanpura's field work traces how calls to leave behind ethnic differences, without recognition of sociological and historical lines of contestation, reinscribe ethnic and racialised hierarchies. The discourse of equality temporarily papers over political grievances. Yet, the speech and actions of Tamil workers, who labour always under the shadow of the Sri Lankan military in the background, are mediated through Sinhala-nationalist chauvinism. Tamil resistance to exploitative work conditions is recast by management as a sign of ethnic backwardness. Expunging sociological and ideological traces does not produce equality. Rather, as Ruwanpura demonstrates, abstract codes of conduct that assume an unmarked, universal worker become tools in the hands of management and others. A militarised state and society come to be reflected in militarised capital and its control over labour. 
Value added
In a chapter aptly titled "Ethicality with a Blind Eye", Ruwanpura tracks the paradoxes and blind spots of ethical codes as they play out in Sri Lanka – noting, among other things, that fair-trade provisions are not part of the lexicon of ethical codes of conduct. 
Curiously, the author finds near complete compliance in Sri Lanka with requirements to have no child labour. And, unlike in places like Bangladesh, here factory premises are well-ordered, hygienic and even aesthetically pleasing, and wages are paid regularly and on time. Yet the continuing lack of a right to freedom of association and collective bargaining for Sri Lankan workers – despite a history of unionising – seems to go unnoticed. Indeed, management invariably resists or subverts efforts at unionising, which is usually framed as a risk that will drive away buyers. In contrast, according to an informal poll carried out by Ruwanpura, most workers list the lack of freedom of association, as well as the absence of living wages, as serious rights violations. 
A garment factory in Vavuniya. Sri Lanka's government "opened up" the country's North and East for investment at the formal end of the country's civil war. Photo: ZUMA Press / IMAGO
A garment factory in Vavuniya. Sri Lanka's government "opened up" the country's North and East for investment at the formal end of the country's civil war. Photo: ZUMA Press / IMAGO
Ruwanpura is careful not to make sweeping generalisations, however. Her argument is not that workers have not gained anything from the implementation of corporate codes of conduct. She concedes this is not a zero-sum game and that ethical codes do deliver at least partial labour justice. Pointing to the limits of voluntary ethical governance, the text raises a set of difficult questions. What does it mean for labour rights when "unblemished" working conditions do not translate into the payment of living wages? Or when the right to organise is actively disregarded? 
Garments without Guilt? also turns our attention to how the aesthetics of ethical practices obscure as much as they reveal. For instance, a ban on weekend work is compensated by longer workdays. It is fascinating to learn that for some workers, garment factories in their sheer material "splendor" – shiny, clean and new – constitute a dream world of sorts,  spaces that could be confused with tourist destinations. 
The complex and ambivalent meanings attached to factory work, at least for the primarily Sinhala workforce, are perhaps best captured in a poem by a worker Ruwanpura calls Anu: 

Lovingly, to you

With a big burden in your heart

You smile, ignoring tears and hardships in life

Striving in the factory to attain prosperity for it;

You are a courageous Lankan woman serving the country.

Your heart fills with love for your children always

Daily, you try to provide for your sons

With nimble hands, you stitch clothes

This factory runs with your courage.

Weaving clothes using various patterns

You enhance the looks of beautiful women

For bringing in foreign exchange to Sri Lanka

You are appreciated this way.

Anu's invocation of factory, family and patriotic duty could be read as submission to tropes of sacrifice for the nation and family, therefore enabling a reconciliation with the hardships involved, and muting any potential resistance. Alternatively, it could be interpreted as staking a claim on the nation and its citizenship, an assertion of worker agency in the insistence that the value (added) of her labours for the national economy be recognised and valourised. Perhaps both readings have some validity. The compellingly polychromatic cover of Garments without Guilt? gestures to the prevailing discourse of national development and prosperity, which hinges on women's labour in the industry –especially in the aftermath of Sri Lanka's recent bankruptcy, which left the garment industry as one of the country's main sectors generating foreign currency.
The question of what counts as ethical production is not easily answered. Over the course of eight chapters, Ruwanpura explores a basic paradox at the heart of the Sri Lankan apparel industry. Precarity is produced not from job insecurity, wage arrears or unsafe working conditions, as in places like Bangladesh. Here, it comes from the inability to make a living wage. Garments without Guilt? invites us to think about the contradictions and conundrums embedded in "ethical" sourcing practices and prompts reflection on the limits of neoliberal governance. It brings into view a host of other questions: What exactly do ethical codes do? Why are some codes upheld and others dismissed? What counts as a labour right or a rights violation, and for whom? What constitutes safety, and from whose perspective? 

Precarity is produced not from job insecurity, wage arrears or unsafe working conditions, as in places like Bangladesh. Here, it comes from the inability to make a living wage.

Garments without Guilt? also challenges narrative erasures that have accompanied a neoliberal discursive environment dismissive of the roles of both the state and collective action. If decades of state intervention and labour-friendly legislation made Sri Lanka's relative success possible, what are the lessons for us today? Elaborating on the idea of grounded governance, Ruwanpura suggests that transforming the lives of garment workers anywhere calls for labour voices and agency of the collective kind, rather than individual training (though the latter has its place). Privatising or outsourcing labour rights to the commercial sector may not provide meaningful change. Finally, Garments without Guilt? is also a call for radical scholarship. Ruwanpura reminds us that the architecture of current global governance regimes was partly a response to early feminist critiques of "third world sweatshop labour" and the feminisation of this labour force. 
This book comes at a critical moment in the history of global garment production, with the utility of corporate ethical codes under renewed scrutiny in a pandemic-ravaged industry, and collective organisation and labour rights under sustained ideological assault across the globe. It makes a critical intervention in the scholarship on the global garment industry, and makes for urgent reading for policymakers and activists, as well as for scholars of labour. 
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