Gender inequality in the workforce in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh: What needs to be done to increase female empowerment?

Progress Bar Loading with the text: Equality

          A common theme that has emerged throughout the past four blog posts is that Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi female factory workers are poorly treated due to the lack of gender equality. In contrast to the education and health sectors which have made substantial improvements, the labor market remains a primary source of gender inequality in both countries. Due to labor exploitation, sexual and physical violence, and minimal access to certain social and political advantages, women continue to be placed on a lower platform than men.

          Throughout Sri Lanka, “women make up the majority of the vulnerable groups that have emerged, which include those retrenched under economic reforms, female heads of less affluent households, and women who have been affected by armed conflict and the tsunami who have lost their livelihoods and are in urgent need of access to income earning opportunities” (Jayaweera et al., 2007, 43). Since women are relatively disadvantaged in the employment structure, they are not receiving the incomes they need to survive. Specifically, many women have sought employment in both garment factories and overseas domestic labor, in which they are solely at the bottom of the power hierarchy. The international and local labor market continues to demand low cost/low wage female workers because it has been a “comparative advantage for national policy makers” (Jayaweera et al., 2007, 44). In other words, due the presence of hierarchical gender ideologies in Sri Lanka, women are viewed as the “subordinate” group. As a result, business owners are able to treat them solely as they please in order to keep the cost of goods low and maximize their profit. Unfortunately, the gender inequality women in Sri Lanka experience goes beyond economic exploitation. In addition to low wages, female workers experience job insecurity, long working hours, hazardous working environments, physical and sexual harassment/abuse, etc. Although these issues may not always be reported, there is evident documentation proving that this is a widespread issue in Sri Lanka.

          Since increasing numbers of females have entered the workforce in Sri Lanka, the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the Employers Federation of Ceylon (EFC) urge that Sri Lankan companies become more gender sensitive. According to a study commissioned by the ILO and EFC titled, “Beyond Glass Ceilings and Brick Walls; Gender at the Workplace,” there are various forms of gender bias in the Sri Lankan workforce (Samaraweera, 2006). For example, regardless of their qualifications, men have a greater chance of being recruited or hired into certain types of employment. Men are also more likely to be promoted to higher positions. What’s interesting about this finding is that men are not always promoted based on their track record for better performance or better decision making skills (Samaraweera, 2006). In other words, male workers can easily be promoted to top positions simply because they are male and are viewed as the “superior gender” in Sri Lanka. With this being said, because women are perceived as the “inferior gender,” they are primarily concentrated in lower positions. Although business owners may be benefiting from the goods workers are producing, companies in the long run are not making the most of educated human resources by hiring and promoting males strictly due to their gender and not necessarily their qualifications. Gender inequality becomes an important issue because both men and women have equal potential in the workforce. The main barrier to achieving gender equality are the biases and stereotypes surrounding women. Therefore, the most effective way to help women begin to get ahead in the workforce is to facilitate women’s empowerment.

          Similar to Sri Lankan women, Bangladeshi women face many barriers and disadvantages in their lives that go beyond a lack of economic opportunity. The other main struggles women encounter in Bangladesh are access to health care, political participation, and control of finances (Hasan, 2016). Specifically, Bangladeshi women are fighting to establish their rights in family, society, and in the state; however, discriminatory laws and policies hinder formal equality and certain social and political conditions continue to prevent women from exercising their rights (World Vision International, 2016). Another challenge is that even though there are certain laws to prevent violence against women, the enforcement of these laws remains unsatisfactory. Fortunately, the USAID has been working to set up programs in Bangladesh that solely focus on women’s empowerment. The USAID seeks to increase female participation, reduce gender inequality, and raise awareness about the positive impacts of empowering women and girls throughout society (Hasan, 2016). For example, in 2014 the USAID programs in Bangladesh trained more than 33,000 women farmers to use fertilizer deep placement technology; as a result, this helped them reduce fertilizer use by as much as 30 percent while increasing crop yields up to 20 percent (Hasan, 2016). Not only is the USAID working to place women on the same platform as men, but their advocacy is increasing community connectedness throughout Bangladesh. Additionally, men have become more knowledgeable on these gender issues and are starting to form joint alliances to help fight for the equal status of women. The USAID programs in Bangladesh can positively affect Sri Lanka as well because the USAID has the power and resources to expand their advocacy in other countries or regions in which gender inequality is an evident issue.

          Gender issues are fortunately now being prioritized by aid and development agencies as seen in the USAID programs in Bangladesh. However, gender inequality remains one of the biggest development challenges of the twenty first century. Therefore, it is important to conclude with a discussion of how the world can be a more equitable place for women and girls. The western newspaper, The Guardian, recently published an article discussing twelve steps that need to be taken to achieve gender equality on a global scale. One of these solutions is to stop sexual harassment. In Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, in particular, sexual harassment is a prominent issue in both the workforce and other areas of life. Not only is sexual harassment a violation of fundamental human rights, but it is also a major barrier to women’s full potential (Leach, 2016).  Another important solution that has been discussed multiple times throughout my blog posts is the need to give proper value to “women’s work.” Specifically, the low-waged work women and girls do provide the foundation for the global economy. Increased research and awareness on this point would be beneficial in emphasizing the key role women and girls have in the economy and the need for proper recognition and compensation (Leach, 2016). In addition, there needs to be a global increase in campaigns for equal pay and equal work. Lastly, there is a need to stop violence. Gender inequality is associated with violence; because women are viewed as inferior to men, they can be treated a sexual objects. The UN has found that globally, one in three women will experience violence in her lifetime (Leach, 2016). Fortunately, many actors, including the UN, ILO, and USAID have done a significant amount of advocacy work to raise more awareness on the issue of violence against women and discuss effective prevention and response strategies. However, there is still a lot more work that needs to be done until women experience true equality with men in all facets of life.



Jayaweera, S., Wijemanne, H., Wanasundera, L., & Vitarana, K. M. (2007). Gender Dimensions of the Millennium Development Goals in Sri Lanka (Publication). Colombo: Centre for Women’s Research.

Leach, A. (2016, March 14). 12 steps to achieve gender equality in our lifetimes. The Guardian. Retrieved from  

Samaraweera, D. (2006). Working women of Sri Lanka dealing with brick walls and glass ceilings. Sunday Times. Ik. Retrieved from  

World Vision International: Bangladesh (2016). Gender equality. Retrieved from  


Sexual Harassment: An ongoing issue that goes beyond the workforce in Sri Lanka


          Along with the micro-level issues I have explored in the previous blog posts, sexual harassment is an overarching issue that has unfortunately become commonplace in Sri Lanka. Sexual harassment is prominent in the workforce, but women are also subjected to this poor treatment throughout other domains of life. Since this issue continues to be one of the many human rights violations Sri Lankan women face, it requires advocacy on both a local and global level.  

                   Sexual harassment and violence against women has been an ongoing issue not only at Sri Lanka’s EPZ factories, but throughout other parts of the country as well, such as public transportation. Common forms of sexual harassment and violence that Sri Lankan women experience in the vicinity of factories and on public transportation include touching/ groping, sending/showing pornographic material, verbal abuse, and rape (Perera-Desilva, 2015). Sexual harassment against women has become so commonplace throughout Sri Lanka partially because women and their bodies are objectified due to social stigma. “Pejorative terms and phrases have been coined to label female factory workers as things, such as, ‘Garment baduwa’ (garment object), ‘garment kaalla’ (garment piece), and ‘Kalape kella’ (Zone girl)” (Perera-Desilva, 2015, 67). Furthermore, three-wheeler taxi drivers have been proven to be key figures in this sub-culture because they are involved in helping prostitution rings, finding hotels and guest houses for young couples for sexual activities, and locating places for illegal abortions (Perera-Desilva, 2015). This is an important point because women walking by a three-wheeler parking lot or taking a three-wheeler are subjected to unpleasant sexual remarks and gestures. Three-wheelers are located throughout Sri Lanka and sometimes are the only means of transportation women can utilize after a tiring day of work. This abuse is unfortunately unavoidable and, as a result, women are systematically dehumanized by their male perpetrators.

          In addition to garment workers, nearly 29% of female journalists in Sri Lanka have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace (Adaderana. Ik, 2015). This percentage could easily be a lot higher because many cases of sexual harassment and abuse within the workplace are not reported. Incidents of sexual harassment are usually disregarded due to the lack of support from colleagues, and complaints lodged are also typically ignored by the organization (Adaderana. Ik, 2015). For example, when one of the female victims, a Colombo-based English language journalist reported sexual abuse to a female colleague, she was advised to ignore the incident “for the sake of peace;” her Department Head also asked her to withdraw her complaint and sign a document claiming she had “misunderstood” the situation (Adaderana. Ik, 2015). The lack of a support system from authoritative figures is problematic because if colleagues and organization heads are ignoring sexual harassment allegations, not only do female workers have no one to speak to about their experiences of sexual harassment, but they inevitably feel trapped in this abuse. There is ultimately a power imbalance between female workers and male perpetrators; female workers are inexplicably forced to obey the commands of their sexual aggressors because they are viewed as their “superiors.”

          According to Fokus, a forum for women and development, the kinds of sexual harassment that take place in Sri Lanka are abundant, whether it be in the workplace, the street, or in public transportation. Forms of sexual harassment can range from catcalls on the street to the dangerous practice of asking for sexual favors in return for workplace benefits (Gomez, 2013). Sexual harassment was made a criminal offense in Sri Lanka in 1995. Specifically, section 345 of the Penal Code criminalizes sexual harassment and the offense carries a punishment of up to five years imprisonment if found guilty (Gomez, 2013). However, this law has lost its effectiveness because violence against women has become a widespread behavior in Sri Lanka. In other words, the number of reports incidents are negligible because some female workers may feel embarrassed and will not want to ‘make a scene’; the fear of retaliation and repeated acts of violence also keeps many women silent (Gomez, 2013). Therefore, the most effective and long-lasting solution to the problem would be for both victims and bystanders of the violence to speak up against sexual harassment in order to raise more awareness.

          Women activists have been actively trying get the international community to proactively engage with the state to secure justice for these women who have experienced sexual harassment and abuse (Gomez, 2013). Global UN campaigns have been enacted to end violence against women and girls. These campaigns include the UNite to End Violence Against Women, which focuses on global advocacy, strengthening partnerships and efforts at the national and regional levels, and leading by example through the UN leadership; states are encouraged to enact, strengthen and enforce laws regarding violence against women (United Nations, women watch). Another important campaign is Say No to Violence Against Women (UNIFEM), which is a global effort using the internet to promote advocacy to fight sexual harassment and violence. The movement seeks to make ending violence against women a priority for all governments (United Nations, women watch). These global campaigns are important because not only can they help to deteriorate acts of sexual harassment and violence in Sri Lanka, but they can also make a positive impact in other countries in which sexual harassment and violence remains a prominent issue. Overall, activists play a crucial role in stopping this ongoing issue because remaining silent only condones this type of behavior.

          Lastly, along with these significant campaigns, activists and demonstrators in countries all throughout Asia, including Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Nepal have joined India’s protest movement against sexual violence (Burke, 2013). Despite the united anger against this issue, the social stigma attached to victims that I discussed towards the beginning of this post remains a major problem throughout Asia. However, protesters and activists are not giving up that easily. Specifically, Khushi Kabir, one of the organizers of a “human chain” to protest against violence against women in Dhaka, Bangladesh, said its aim was “to show that people are not going to just let this movement die down” (Burke, 2013). This motivation and determination is key because power is in numbers; the more people who take a stand, the more likely instances of sexual harassment and abuse will receive the attention they deserve. Kabir also addresses that although previous protests on sexual harassment and violence have typically been dominated by women, men are now joining the fight as well. Overall, people from all different parts of society are joining the protests, including lawyers, schoolchildren, teachers, theatre activists and personalities, industrialists, etc. (Burke, 2013). If this grassroots activism continues to expand and grab the attention of more citizens, then victims over time should hopefully be ensured justice and freedom.


29% of Sri Lanka female journos sexually harassed at workplace: Report. (2015, March 9). Adaderana.lk

Burke, J. (2013, January 4). Rape protests spread beyond India. The Guardian. Retrieved from

Gomez, S. (2013). Violence against women in Sri Lanka. Fokus: Forum for Women and Development.

Nadeesha, V. N. (2015). Psychological counselling for women garment factory workers of Sri Lanka. Asian Journal of Women’s Studies, 21(1), 65-76. Retrieved from

United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women: Campaigns. (2012). Retrieved from  

Garment Factories: The female worker experience in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh

A look inside a garment factory in Colombo, Sri Lanka
             A look inside a garment factory in Colombo, Sri Lanka

          In the previous post, I discussed some of that human rights violations that take place at Sri Lanka’s tea plantations, specifically the issue of forced sterilization. Unfortunately, human rights issues expand beyond Sri Lanka’s tea plantations. Garment factories are another dominant source of the inequalities female workers face throughout developing nations; I will focus on Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, in particular. Due to strenuous working hours, threats and intimidation by authorities, and a lack of attention to safety standards, women continue to be exploited in the industrial workforce.  

            Working hours for the majority of garment workers are from about 7am-4pm; tardiness is punished by wage cuts (Samarasinghe, 1998). Quota targets are set for each individual worker, and the inability to meet such production targets often results in various punishments, including working overtime without pay and being subjected to humiliating practices. An example of these humiliating practices is placing a black flag on the individual’s work table, which requires the worker to stand in front of the others (Samarasinghe, 1998). The use of bathroom breaks during work hours is strictly controlled and medical facilities are either minimal or nonexistent. This is problematic because there are laws that have been rescinded by governments in order to promote export production. For example, in 1982, the Sri Lanka government withdrew from ILO convention No. 89 which prohibited night work for women employees because they wanted women to work night shifts (Samarasinghe, 1998). Specifically, night work became an option in which women had to choice to be apart of. However, in reality, women do not have the choice to work a night shift or not because due to their subordinate position, they do not have the power to refuse to work when asked by management.  

          Altering and/or failing to properly acknowledge the presence of legal documents is violating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The United Nations General Assembly ratified the declaration on December 10, 1948 in hopes of universally protecting fundamental human rights. I want to pay close attention to articles three and five in particular. Article three states that “everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person”; article five exclaims that “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment” (UDHR, 1948) Denying female workers reasonable working hours and wages is violating article three because they do not have the “right” or “power” to stand up to business owners. Their freedom is evidently limited because if they refute the commands of owners, they will be punished. Workers do not have the freedom to do certain things that we may take for granted, such as using the restroom without strict supervision and being provided with necessary medical care. Furthermore, business owners are repeatedly violating article five by subjecting workers to acts of humiliation when they do not meet production quota. Business owners are also taking advantage of the workers’ labor by forcing them to work overtime hours without pay. This is ultimately representative of local exploitation at the hands of globalized power relations because this treatment is allowed due to the lack of labor laws that prevent it.  As stated in the previous blog post, the garment industry has launched the “garments without guilt campaign” to improve the image of the sector. With this being said, according to the ILO, enterprises in EPZs should improve the working conditions and pay in the zones. The enterprises should also “abide by the labour laws, in particular, related to equality at work, freedom of association and collective bargaining, and promoting social dialogue” (Otobe, 2013, 18). The goal is that by improving working conditions, the overall employability and productivity of workers will be improved, allowing Sri Lanka’s industrial competitiveness to flourish on the global market.

          The issues in Sri Lanka’s garment factories are also present in one of their neighboring countries, Bangladesh. Since the April 2013 Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, many workers who have tried to form unions to address abuses in factories face threats, intimidation, dismissal, and sometimes physical assault by factory managers or “hired thugs” (Burke, 2015). In addition, researchers interviewed 160 workers from 44 factories in and around Dhaka and they heard complaints of physical assault, verbal abuse, forced overtime, unsanitary conditions, denial of paid maternity leave, and failure to pay wages and bonuses on time or in full (Burke, 2011). Therefore, even though western companies say that they are going to be more thorough in monitoring the working conditions at their factories, Bangladesh garment workers still continue to suffer from poor working conditions nearly two years after these reform vows. This is significant because failure to properly enforce labor laws can lead to future Rana Plaza disasters.

          The lack of attention governments and multinational corporations have paid towards the poor working conditions has caused chaos in Bangladesh. Specifically, in July 2008, 12,000 Bangladeshi workers from five different companies in Kuwait went on a four-day strike demanding pay hikes and better working conditions. According to an article from Bangladesh News, the workers told reporters in Kuwait that they were living under unhygienic and inhumane conditions in the Gulf state (Bangladesh News, 2008) The foreign ministry issued a statement forcing workers to go back to work by saying that it is their duty to obey the Kuwaiti laws (Bangladesh News, 2008). This article is important because if the ministry wants workers to obey certain laws, they in return, need to enforce policies that provide workers with substantial wages and safe and sanitary work environments. Otherwise, the ministry and governments cannot be surprised when workers go on strike and retaliate as a result of their failure to properly address ongoing problems within the workplace.

          Women in garment factories face a disproportionate threat when it comes to issues such as job insecurity, poor wages, subjectivity to harassment, and intimidation tactics. In order to avoid prolonged human rights violations, Western corporations, local governments, and global authorities need to prioritize the safety and well-being of marginalized workers who financially rely on employment in the garment sector.


Bangladeshi workers return to work in Kuwait. (2008, July 30). Bangladesh News. Retrieved from  

Burke, J. (2015, April 22). Bangladesh garment workers suffer poor conditions two years after reform vows. The Guardian. Retrieved from  

Otobe, N. (2013). Globalization, employment and gender in the open economy of Sri Lanka (pp. 1-48, Working paper No. 138). International Labor Organization.—ed_emp/documents/publication/wcms_212721.pdf

Samarasinghe, V. (1998). The Feminization of Foreign Currency Earnings: Women’s Labor in Sri Lanka. The Journal of Developing Areas, 32(3), 303-326. Retrieved from   

United Nations General Assembly. (1948). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


Exploring Micro-Level Issues Within Sri Lanka’s EPZs

                              A look inside Sri Lanka’s Tea Plantations

        EPZs have emerged as one of the effects of export-oriented industrialization (EOI). EOI is a trade and economic policy which aims to speed-up the industrialization process of a country through exporting goods. These goods are typically produced through the utilization of low cost and unskilled labor. EPZs are seen as an instrument for promoting the production of both commercial and industrial exports. Although EPZs may be viewed as fundamental way to stimulate economic growth in a nation, there are unfortunately many issues with EPZs on both a macro and micro level. Employment creation is an example of an issue on the macro level, whereas wages and working conditions are micro level problems. This analysis will specifically exemplify the micro level issue of working conditions in Sri Lanka’s EPZs.

        One of the ongoing human rights violations in Sri Lanka’s workplace is at tea plantations. Specifically, at Sri Lanka’s tea plantations, women experience forced sterilization abuses that are harmful to their health. Forced sterilization is the process of premaritally ending one’s ability to reproduce without obtaining consent and it is one of the several human rights issues that women have been facing for decades; poor ethnic/racial minorities are most vulnerable to this treatment (Balasundaram, 2011). Historically speaking, “forced sterilization began in Western countries with the eugenic movement. This movement sterilized millions of people in the West without informed consent, and this trend of forced sterilization shifted to developing countries” (Balasundaram, 2011, 61). In regards to Sri Lanka, forced sterilization has been a practice since the 1980s. Since then, Tamil female workers in tea plantations located in the central part of Sri Lanka have experienced abuses of their reproductive rights after plantations were privatized in 1992 (Balasundaram, 2011). This procedure is problematic because research findings have revealed that forced sterilization can cause serious physical and mental risks for women. In Sri Lanka, there is no law regarding informed consent for the sterilization, and as a result, governments’ claim that sterilization is merely a family planning program to promote reproductive health (Balasundaram, 2011). This claim is concerning because women are forced into this painful procedure without consent and often report feeling physically weak after the procedure takes place. Therefore, forced sterilization should not be viewed as a program to promote reproductive health; it is evidently a human rights violation because female workers are not only fearful of being subjected into this abuse, but in general, they do not have any power or control over their reproductive rights.  

        The process of forced sterilization violates the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The CEDAW in an international treaty that was adopted in 1979 by the United Nations General Assembly and is described as an international bill of rights for women. According to article one of the convention, discrimination against women is defined as “…any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field” (CEDAW, 1979). The situations present within Sri Lanka’s tea plantations violate certain fundamental freedoms that women should be awarded.  Specifically, women are denied the right to their own bodies because they are unable to freely decide when and how they bear children. Furthermore, another issue is the lack of training and medical knowledge of the people who perform these procedures. Since 2009, the Northern Province Health Ministry in Sri Lanka has recruited more than 500 Public Health Midwives (PHM) without any basic scientific qualifications; they have been trained only to implement contraception methods in the community (Nanthakumaaran, 2013). These training sessions were conducted with the help of the Ministry of Health, WHO and UNICEF under the name of family planning at RTC ( Regional Training Centre) in Jaffna, Sri Lanka (Nanthakumaaran, 2013). Important actors, such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF are not fighting against this procedure, but instead are supporting and facilitating it. These actors have the power to help put an end to this awful and inhumane procedure; however,  they continue to ignore the various issues with forced sterilization, and as a result, females in Sri Lanka remain trapped in this human rights violation.

        In addition to the forced sterilization problem in Sri Lanka’s tea plantations, other individual freedoms are suppressed throughout Sri Lankan work zones. Specifically, freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining are ignored in practice; certain issues, such as discrimination against women and sexual harassment have become commonplace in Sri Lanka (Longhi, 2011). Business owners are able to ease by with committing these human rights violations because there are a lack of governmental policies enacted to protect workers. Women are inexplicably forced to obey the commands of sexual aggressors so they do not risk punishment through dismissal, arbitrary pay cuts, or vulnerability to future attacks. According to the International Trade Unions Confederation’s (ITUC) latest report to the World Trade Organization (WTO), “Sri Lanka has ratified all eight core International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions, but has fallen far short of implementing these conventions and continues to restrict trade union rights” (Longhi, 2011). This is unacceptable because the government has failed to demonstrate its full adherence to the core labor standards obligations. Overall, EPZs have clearly benefited companies and employers, but worker benefits continue to not be a priority.

        Although the working conditions at Sri Lanka’s EPZs are unacceptable, there is some hope that improvements can be made. As stated in the previous post, a garment factory in Bangladesh (a neighbor of Sri Lanka) collapsed in April of 2013 killing over 1,000 workers because safety standards were ignored. A Sri Lankan online newspaper, ColomboPage, acknowledges that although this disaster was tragic, it has put pressure on manufacturers to improve safety standards and workers rights. Specifically, the “garments without guilt”  campaign was created as an attempt to better manage the various issues within EPZs, specifically the working conditions. (Fernandez, 2013). Even though, it is somewhat reassuring the Sri Lankan garment firms are  trying to boost working conditions,  this campaign is simply not enough. The local government as well as western governments need to collaborate with one another to better enforce policies that protect workers and women’s bodily autonomy.


Balasundaram, S. (2011). Stealing Wombs: Sterilization Abuses and Women’s Reproductive Health in Sri Lanka’s Tea Plantations. Indian Anthropologist, 41(2), 57-78. Retrieved from

Fernandez, M. (2013, May 24). Sri Lanka garment firms boost work conditions. ColomboPage. Retrieved from

Longhi, V. (2011, January 20). Sri Lanka needs to regain its trade concessions but workers must benefit. The Guardian. Retrieved from

Nanthakumaaran, Y. (2013, December 20). Forced Sterilization And Northern Tamils. Colombo Telegraph. Retrieved from

United Nations General Assembly. (1979, December 18). The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Retrieved from

A Critical Analysis of EPZ Working Conditions in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh: Introduction


I am interested in evaluating the poor working conditions that are present within certain export processing zones (EPZs) through a human rights perspective. Throughout the course of these blog posts, I plan to analyze the historical context behind which certain inequalities emerged within EPZs and thoroughly discuss women’s treatment.  EPZs are designated areas set up by governments to promote the production of both industrial and commercial exports. They are generally located in developing countries and I will specifically focus on the conditions at the EPZs in Sri Lanka. In addition, I will connect the working conditions in Sri Lanka to its neighboring country, Bangladesh. EPZs have become mostly female dominated due the feminization of unskilled labor; women are are also generally cheaper than men to employ. This is problematic because a large number of women workers are abused, mistreated, and exploited. The inhumane working conditions at EPZs have emerged as a result of globalization. Specifically, due to the increase in trade networks, multinational corporations have been able to expand their business, and thus, power has shifted exclusively to business owners, managers, and investors. This shift of power has created a power imbalance between business owners and workers. Owners will ignore safety standards and pay their workers exceptionally low wages in order to keep the cost of goods down. In addition, there is a lack of sanitation, poor ventilation, contaminated drinking water, and female workers are subjected to sexual violence and harassment. Business owners are able to get away with these human rights violations because there are lack of laws that enforce labor standards. The government has failed to enforce labor laws on factory owners because violence against women has unfortunately become so commonplace in Sri Lanka. As a result, female workers are trapped in these conditions because if they retaliate or try to defend themselves, they will be subjected to repeated acts of violence and/or potentially be fired.

          One of the main issues in Sri Lanka’s EPZs is the lack of health and safety standards. According to a case study conducted by Takayoshi Kusago and Zafiris Tzannatos,  the researchers found that there was no governmental hospital/dispensary in Sri Lanka’s EPZs; though 60% of firms had a first aid box, only 13% had medical units (Kusago & Tzannatos, 1998, pg. 16). The specific culprits of health problems included short rest periods due to overtime and night shift, lack of air- conditioning, and excessive heat generated from machines (Kusago & Tzannatos, 1998, pg. 16). These findings are problematic because the government and business owners are failing to adequately provide workers with a safe, sanitary, and humane working environment. The health problems that arise from EPZs are especially concerning because if a worker gets sick or injured due to these poor conditions, they will be unable to come to work, and thus, will not get paid.

        In addition to Sri Lanka, workers are continuing to die in the unsafe factories in Bangladesh. In April 2013, the Rana Plaza clothing factory collapsed near Dhaka killing over 1,000 people. Since then, the big Western clothing companies that have their garments produced in Bangladesh have been pressured to intervene more forcefully to improve safety and working conditions in the workshops they buy from (The Economist, 2013). However, western companies have failed to take proper action against the unsafe working conditions. In October 2013, ten people died when another factory in Bangladesh went up in flames (The Economist, 2013). Western companies and governments are not taking the necessary actions to improve safety standards because their primary interest is keeping costs low.

        Furthermore, along with the lack of safety standards and poor working conditions at the EPZs, certain factories in Sri Lanka, in particular, are subjected to closure due to financial issues; as a result, workers become unemployed. According to an article from Sri Lanka’s internet newspaper, ColomboPage, several factories have closed down operations, leaving thousands of employees stranded (ColomboPage, 2013). Ten garment manufacturing factories have been closed in Byname, Nittambuwa, and Katunayake investment zones causing losses of about five billion to the banks (ColomboPage, 2013) Unfortunately, the government has failed to address the issue. This is significant because garment factories are primarily female dominated. In Sri Lanka, women are often responsible for providing for themselves and their families, and thus, they rely on the income they make working at EPZs. Overall, the issues in Sri Lanka’s EPZs are multidimensional; on the one hand, workers continue to suffer from dangerous working conditions, but they also face the threat of unemployment due to ongoing financial issues within the country.

        Lastly, the concerning working conditions at both Sri Lanka and Bangladesh’s EPZs are violating The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The unsafe conditions specifically violate part of Article 23 which states “everyone has the right to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment…” (UDHR, 1948) Workers are denied these rights because there are lack of medical units at EPZs, limited rest periods, poor ventilation, they are subjected to being killed due to factory fires, and the government has failed to properly compensate workers when they become unemployed due to factory closures. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), there are certain countries that openly exclude EPZs from the national labor legislation and system of labor-management relations; in Bangladesh, EPZs are excluded from the scope of the country’s Industrial Relations Ordinance, which provides for organization and bargaining rights in other sectors (ILO, 1998) This is problematic because there are evident human rights violations in EPZs, and thus, EPZs need to be included in the national labor systems so workers are provided with the rights they deserve.


DHAKA. (2013, October 26). Bursting at the seams. The Economist. Retrieved from

Kusago, T., & Tzannatos, Z. (1998, January). Export Processing Zones: A Review in Need of Update. Retrieved from

ILO. (1998, September 28). Export processing zones growing steadily. Retrieved from–en/index.htm

Sri Lanka private sector companies are facing closure due to financial issues – trade union. (2013, January 17). ColomboPage. Retrieved from

United Nations General Assembly. (1948). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.