Well you would think that it would be us, the consumers, however in reality it is actually Chaturi Salaman, a Sri Lankan garment worker, and other Sri Lankans like her.
ActionAid’s investigation entitled Who Pays: The Real Cost of School Uniforms is particularly striking in illustrating the damaging effects that purchasing cheap school uniforms can have for other fellow-human beings in Sri Lanka.
According to figures by the Joint Apparel Association Forum, more than £50 million worth of clothing is exported to the United Kingdom every year, while women make up 80% of the workforce. Even though such jobs are of an exploitative nature, many women decide to work in the sector, simply because it is a route into employment.
ActionAid’s investigation involved interviewing 12 workers from one factory producing school uniforms in Sri Lanka and two factory owners in Sri Lanka producing clothes for Marks & Spencers. All of this occurred between July and August of 2007.
The investigation found that there is a lot of pressure on suppliers to deliver large orders of school uniforms quickly and cheaply; this affects the workers by increasing the target numbers that they must reach.
Chaturi Salaman, a 22-year-old garment worker, said: “When it gets really busy many of us are crying at work because we can’t handle the pressure. If we are behind schedule then the workers who do the ironing and packing have to work through the night to get the orders done.”
Yet although the women garment workers stated that the extra overtime to complete extra orders is not compulsory, they felt pressurised into doing the extra work, in order to meet deadlines.
Garment workers in Sri Lanka
(Copyright: War On Want)
Chaturi Salaman also describes the working conditions in which she has to put up with.
“When a big order comes in our supervisors scream at us if we can’t increase targets. We don’t drink water because that would mean having to go to the toilet and often we only have a couple of bites of food at lunchtime because otherwise we won’t finish our work in time.”
Even though this on its own seems shocking enough, the wages that the garment workers receive are also abysmal.
ActionAid’s interview found out that only 2% of the retail price for the £6 school uniform dresses sold at Marks & Spencers outlets across the United Kingdom actually goes to the Sri Lankan garment workers. This, combined with the poor wages, results in many workers remaining in poverty.
In reality, trainees gain £16 a month (3,650 rupees) for their first sixth months of work. If they meet all of their targets then wages are increased by (500 rupees) every six months. Yet for many, this increase is ineffective.
Regarding this issue, Renuka Sulman, a 26-year-old garment worker from Columbo, said: “When I first became a garment worker I thought that in five years I’d be able to save enough to go home and start a family of my own. I’ve been working here for nearly ten years now and every month I am getting poorer.”
Working in the garment industry also has negative impacts for the women, due to the fact that they face discrimination and stigma.
Padmini Weerasuriya, an ex-garment worker, said: “Garment women get called juki badu meaning they are slaves to the sewing machines. There is an assumption because they get worked so hard for so little money that they are worthless.”
Sirin Ankar and her one-year-old child
So what can we do, in order to reduce the amount of pain and suffering that is going on, simply for the right to gain cheap clothes to wear?
Well, the first step is to recognize that there is actually a problem and hopefully by reading this blog post, you will be a step closer.
Secondly, by joining campaigns such as ActionAid’s Who Pays? campaign, we can all take regular action to make supermarkets play fair in developing countries.
In terms of supermarkets, the second that they publicly acknowledge the harmful impact that they are having on their workers in countries such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, then steps can be taken in order to address and ultimately prevent it from happening.
I would like to end this blog post with a quotation that I read that has really stuck in my mind. I think that you would agree that it seems like we take much that we have in Western society for granted, especially when other fellow-human beings do not have the same.
Sirin Ankar, a 24-year-old Bangladeshi garment worker making school uniforms for Asda said: “I spend my days making school uniforms for other families, but I can’t afford to give my own children clothes or an education.”