It took me a visit to a friend who runs a small garment supplying company, to realize just how advanced the Sri Lankan garment industry is. She had connections , almost all of them women, to those who supplied design, sampling, cutting, sewing, ironing, washing, accessories and just about everything else that went hand in hand to complete an international class garment manufacturing process. The finished product was a world- class garment, one we could all be proud of.
Which brings me to the topic today. Our unsung heroines who toil behind their Juki machines, a derogatory term also used to address these women as “Juki kello”, and other women who keep the giant wheels of the garment industry in motion, deserve more credit than what merely meets the eye.
The female garment workers have today become an institution deeply woven into the Sri Lankan identity. They are deeply rooted in the mainstream culture, mainly because their ranks come from the far away villages, which do not offer them the kind of economic empowerment a job in the city does. In industrial zones such as Katunayake and Ratmalana, an entire sub-economy springs up around these workers, supplying them with accommodation, food, clothing and jewellery.
Today, most of the big apparel manufacturing companies have recognized the contribution of these workers , resulting in empowerment programmes and career opportunities for the talented among them. Yet, there are hundreds of other garment workers who work for small and medium scale manufacturers who do not always find the best opportunities.
Toil and hard work
Their story is one of toil and hard work. They work sometimes till late, have scanty meals and sleep in crowded quarters. The bulk of what they earn go towards feeding the families back home, keeping siblings and children in school and fed. Their sweat has built up a reputation for Sri Lanka as a garment manufacturing hub for internationally known brand names, one which identifies with quality and finish and also with some of the best practices in the industry, no matter what those lobbying against us may choose to say otherwise.
Have we as a society recognized the contribution of these women – have we expressed a concern for their cramped lives, their mental and physical health, their dreams and visions that they so desperately want to see come to life…Other than admiring their work and perhaps being overjoyed at buying branded garments that come as stock lots to the local outlets, not many of us have. They are just another part of the colour-less and drab economic picture painted so often of our nation.
Yet their ranks swelled, their pride stood tall, not on the run, when challenged with a pension bill they did not want. One of their colleagues paid the ultimate price for defiance but they stood tall, all together as one, and were able to turn the proposed bill back on its heel. Such was the steel under grace, the determination contained in their otherwise lackluster lives. They did not want anyone, not even the government, to take away their hard earned livelihood. They may toil for long hours at a Juki machine, the cutting table or the washing plant, but they, just like everyone else, harbor long term plans and dreams that someday, would enable them to go beyond their limited existence.
Ability to rise
There’s something about them that makes me proud – their ability to rise above poverty in lighting a lamp, however small, without cursing the darkness. Their commitment that makes my heart swell when I see a ‘Made in Sri Lanka’ labeled garment, an exquisite product they toil so hard to finish, grace the racks at some of the world’s finest branded flag ship stores.
The Juki girls, as they may be known to the hoards of men who wait outside the factories with hopeful eyes to catch the glance of one of them at the end of a long work day, are proudly Sri Lankan. They have put us on the world’s fashion map. They are not a source of shame sewing away underwear as some crusty politician once called them but they are highly skilled professional artistes whose skill gives a garment the finish expected on the Parisian catwalk.
Every time I come across a superbly finished garment adorned with the “Made in Sri Lanka” label, whether here at home or elsewhere, I am reminded to be grateful for the woman whose sweat and tears went into making it. The money she earned for her work went to feed a family and educate children. And that’s why we need to be thankful for them and the faceless, nameless ranks of women whose hands turn the wheels of the economy in motion.
(Nayomini is a senior journalist, a writer and a PR professional and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)