Sri Lanka workers organise fashion show to demand ‘living wage’
by Melani Manel Perera
The Free Trade Zone and General Services Employees' Union chose this unusual form of labour action to underscore the problems of the garment industry. Its campaign is titled ‘Living Together-Sharing the Wallet’.
Colombo (AsiaNews) – Sri Lanka’s Free Trade Zone and General Services Employees' Union launched a campaign for decent work in response to the growing crisis in the apparel sector. However, the Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF) sees it only as an image problem even though job losses went from 15,000 last year to 30,000 this year. The union’s campaign is titled "Living Together-Sharing the Wallet". FTZ workers want to highlight the difference between a ‘minimum wage’ and a ‘living wage’. The government for its part has shown no interest in the matter.

Traditionally, trade unions support workers’ rights through action in the streets. This time, they abandoned the beaten path and instead organised a fashion show titled "Living Together-Sharing the Wallet" at the Punchi Theatre at Borella on 27 October.

“This event may seem strange to many people, because our trade union culture is to take to the streets, or organise protests, but we felt that trade unions must interact with society in an intelligent way,” said Anton Marcus, joint secretary of the Free Trade Zones and General services Employees Union.

“With the new generation of workers, who have come into employment in a consumer-oriented market after the economy was liberalised in 1978, the old way of campaigning is not very effective. Attitudes and values have changed, especially among young workers,” he explained.

“Therefore in this instance, as we have to engage in a social dialogue with those who make decisions and with employers. Hence, we adopted a novel and creative way of drawing attention and interest to our issue,” he added.

In Sri Lanka, “most people don't understand the difference between ‘minimum wage’ and a ‘living wage’,” Markus went on to say. “They don't know what ‘decent work’ is. So, we have to create awareness in society first before we can demand a living wage and convince the employer that a living wage helps industrial peace and stability.”

A living wage means “the ability to sustain a decent, healthy life, personally and socially, with an eight-hour workday. When there is living wage, employers can expect a satisfied labour force, industrial peace and effective cost management”.

“We are committed to good production and greater productivity,” G.A. Sudharma Shyamalee told AsiaNews. However, “we are not treated accordingly.” The 33-year-old worker has worked in the same factory for 13 years.

“As factory workers, we are also making a big contribution to the country’s economy,” said Chandrika Amarasinghe.