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 This is problematic because there are laws that have been rescinded by governments in order to promote export production.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