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A Review of CEPA’s 55th Open Forum on Women and Labour
By Malinda Meegoda for the Centre for Poverty Analysis
Women’s labour has borne the brunt of the continuous conflict between private capital and labour. The plight of women workers is largely caused by social inequities that stem from a society which is becoming increasingly patriarchal and capitalist in nature. The global assault on organised labour in the form of deregulation, privatisation and free trade agreements, undermines the rights of individuals and is anti-democratic and exploitative.
In order to explore the nature of exploitation and the failure of regulatory bodies and existing legislation to address secure work for women workers, CEPA (Centre for Poverty Analysis) organised its 55th Open Forum focusing on women’s work. This public forum focused on three key aspects of the local economy: The Plantation Sector, The Free Trade Zone and the Informal Economy. The three panelists at the event were Padmini Weerasuriya (Executive Director - Women’s Center, Ekala), Menaha Kandasamy (President of Ceylon Plantation Union) and Prashanthi Jayasekara (Researcher at CEPA). The discussion was moderated by Dr. Sepali Kottegoda (Executive Director of the Women and Media Collective). This was the first trilingual Open Forum organised by CEPA and it paved the way for an insightful discussion and debate on women and labour in Tamil, Sinhala and English.
Kandasamy’s, presentation provided an overview of the many challenges that women who are employed in the plantation sector face. Legislation on equal pay has failed to ensure wage parity between women and men, which is in fact what is expected of such regulatory mechanisms. Women continue to be underpaid and are forced to overwork. Kandasamy provided details regarding wage theft by factory managers: through the arbitrary practice of measuring moisture content levels of tea leaves plucked by workers, women’s daily wages are being reduced. Additionally, when women do get paid, remunerations often end up in other people’s hands, because women workers are not able to collect them directly. Women workers work longer hours than men, as a result the husbands collect their wives’ pay after the completion of their work day. Kandasamy also stressed that there is hardly any protection for workers from sexual and verbal harassment that is normalised within the plantation sector. Trade-unions that are purportedly looking after the welfare of these workers are dominated by males and have not been even remotely sensitive towards the needs of the women workers in the plantation sector. Male representatives of trade unions, at times, are themselves guilty of discriminating against women who are only too familiar with rampant male chauvinism in the plantation sector.
Padmini Weerasuriya, representing the Women’s Centre based in Ekala, Ja-Ela, demonstrated how conditions for women workers in the Free Trade Zones (FTZ) have remained largely unchanged despite all the rhetoric generated through various Public Relations activities and other related vacuous CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) Projects. The increase of Manpower agencies has made it even more difficult for women to find secure employment. The constant threat of termination, very nearly as retribution, for any potential strike action and collective activities has stifled the growth of meaningful resistance by workers against their factory owners. It must also be added that in the prevailing post-war environment, workers find it difficult to achieve ‘solidarity in struggle’ with the increasing number of workers from the North and East due to geographical, linguistic and cultural differences.
Weerasuriya also explained the new efficiency schemes introduced at various apparel factories, that have further exacerbated the working conditions of women in the FTZs. One such “efficiency scheme” requires that the workers complete most of their work standing throughout their work shift. The short-term and long term health implications of such practices were also highlighted in a report compiled by the Women’s Centre. The practice of “prolonged standing” on a regular basis can cause “sore feet, swelling of the legs, varicose veins, low back pains and other health problems”. The final outcome of such exploitative measures implemented with the intention of increasing worker “efficiency”, (a term which is often euphemistically used for maximising exploitation) can be described in Karl Marx’s often cited observation where such practices “mutilates the worker into a fragment of a human being, degrades him to become a mere appurtenance of the machine, makes his work such a torment that its essential meaning is destroyed, estranges him from the intellectual potentialities of the labour process in very proportion to the extent to which science is incorporated into it as an independent power ”.
The final presentation was by the CEPA research staff member, Prashanthi Jayasekara. Jayasekara’s presentation focused on Sri Lanka’s informal economy using a case study on Beedi rollers (hand-rolled cigarettes). Through her presentation she highlighted the “gendered and classed nature of informality” of the women working in the Beedi Industry. Through the case study she presented, she highlighted how companies in the trade which are “formal entities” alienate workers by providing meagre wages and no other benefits and protection. The informality for the workers is maintained through the company’s middlemen ensuring the extraction of women’s labour. Jayasekara, when describing the conditions that compelled these women to work in the Beedi Industry, emphasised their dependency on income earned through beedi rolling made for survival. As a result, while these women are burdened with household duties, they are also forced to work under conditions that are precarious and injurious to one’s health; any semblance of proper health and safety practices remain non-existent. As a result, women working in the Beedi Industry are caught up in inescapable structures of violence, that they perforce experience throughout their lifetime.
The presentations were followed by a discussion that featured three discussants: P. Mahadeva (representing Women and Children – Labour Commissioner) and Swarna Sumanasekara (Chairperson of the National Committee of Women) to respond to some of the points made by the presenters. Mahadeva and Sumanasekara, highlighted the various institutional limitations that hindered the attempts to improve the welfare of labourers in these sectors. While some of these limitations, such as the scope of the National Committee of Women, were understandable to some degree, it was difficult to accept that more could not be done by these institutions to advocate for better working and living conditions. Overall, this conversation made the audience question how little women’s right to secure work is spoken about in the policy arena, and how the current policies and legislation are severely handicapped when it comes to ensuring safe and secure work for women. From CEPA’s own institutional point of view, it has a moral responsibility to support and participate in these ongoing struggles for social and economic justice, through carefully calibrated and analytical research.
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