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Sri Lanka

Impacts of COVID-19 on Sri Lanka's garment sector

Background info on garment sector

Sri Lanka’s export garment industry directly employs 400,000 workers and indirectly employs a further two million workers. The majority of garment production takes place in free trade zones, where workers are mainly migrant women from rural areas. The minimum wage is LKR 10,000 (US$54) per month, falling far short of the estimated living wage of LKR 75,601 (US$408) per month. Most of the apparel industry in Sri Lanka hires casual “manpower” workers on a contract basis through manpower agencies, who earn LKR 900 to LKR 1,200 daily wage and do not enjoy the same benefits and rights compared to permanent employees.

The garment industry is Sri Lanka’s largest export industry, accounting for 40% of total exports and generating US$5.6 billion annually. The United States and the European Union are the largest markets for Sri Lankan garment exports. Canada, India, Australia, Sweden, Japan and China are also key export destinations. Brands sourcing from Sri Lanka on our tracker can be viewed below.

The 2020 ITUC Global Rights Index – which rates countries on a scale from 1 (best) to 5+ (worst) on the degree of respect for workers' rights – rates Sri Lanka as 4, indicating workers experience systematic violations of internationally recognised labour rights.

Impacts of pandemic

Job losses

Sri Lanka’s Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF) estimates up to 100,000 job losses in the garment sector as a result of the pandemic, as clothing and textile exports are forecast to drop by 40% for the current financial year.

Wages & social protection

In addition to job cuts, apparel manufacturers have responded to the COVID-19 crisis with wage cuts and the elimination of various allowances and the imposition of increased working hours and productivity targets. According to Sri Lanka’s Department of Labour, 32% of employers in the garment industry were unable to pay workers their salaries in May and June. Clean Clothes campaign estimates that in the months of March, April and May garment workers in Sri Lanka lost a total of approximately 40% of their normal wages, equivalent to US$24 million (despite government initiatives detailed below).

Although the government committed to a monthly relief payment of LKR 5,000 (US$26) to those impacted by the curfew, many garment workers did not receive the allowance as they were prevented by their employers from returning home before the curfew went into effect.

The government established a COVID-19 tripartite task-force to safeguard the interests of workers and employers, which in May 2020 reached an agreement applicable to all sectors, ensuring payment of wages and employment within the existing legal framework. The agreement states that workers will continue to be employed and will not be retrenched from work due to COVID-19 lockdown measures. All employees will be deployed at work and allotted equal number of shifts through rotation to protect workers’ interests while respecting social distancing measures. According to the agreement, if employees were not deployed at work during May and June, they were to be paid 50% of their basic wages or LKR 14500 (US$77), whichever is more beneficial. In addition, employees provident fund and employees’ trust fund contributions on wages will also be paid to workers.

Labour and human rights violations

In Sri Lanka, we have tracked reports of the following rights violations of garment workers during the COVID-19 pandemic:

This is not a comprehensive list of violations and cases, full coverage of the impacts of COVID-19 on Sri Lanka’s garment sector and related industrial disputes can be viewed here. Actions taken by fashion brands sourcing from Sri Lanka in in response to the pandemic can be viewed below.

Demands from local unions & civil society groups

Asia Floor Wage Alliance, WIEGO, HomeNet South Asia and HomeNet South East Asia are calling on brands to make a one-time Supply Chain Relief Contribution equal to 60 days of wages lost for all garment workers in their supply chains – including time-rated, piece-rated, subcontracted and home workers – during the COVID-19 crisis, as a requirement of responsible business practice.

Click below to find out more information directly from local unions and labour groups:

Free Trade Zones & General Services Employees Union

Textile, Garment and Clothing Workers Union (TGCWU)

Ceylon Mercantile, Industrial and General Workers' Union (CMU)

Dabindu Collective

You can view a list of campaigns and demands by international civil society organisations demands here.

[This is a live tracker we update on an ongoing basis. If you have additional information on these issues please contact us at [email protected] with the subject line ‘COVID-19 Action Tracker’]