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 http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/41921991.pdf?acceptTC=true

Fernandez, M. (2013, May 24). Sri Lanka garment firms boost work conditions. ColomboPage. Retrieved from http://www.lankapage.com/NewsFiles/May24_1369379636.php

Longhi, V. (2011, January 20). Sri Lanka needs to regain its trade concessions but workers must benefit. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2011/jan/20/sri-lanka-free-trade-zones

Nanthakumaaran, Y. (2013, December 20). Forced Sterilization And Northern Tamils. Colombo Telegraph. Retrieved from https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/forced-sterilization-and-northern-tamils/

United Nations General Assembly. (1979, December 18). The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Retrieved from http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/text/econvention.htm