Dhammika Silva United Socialist Party (CWI in Sri Lanka)
During the Rajapakse regime, defeated in January this year, not only the women of our country but female foreign tourists encountered very serious situations, including sexual assaults. During the thirty years of war Sri Lankan women had to face life under very stringent oppression. But even since the war ended things have not improved much. When the new Maithripala regime came into power there was of course a little space created for Sri Lankan society to breathe a bit more easily. The powerful oppressive grip of the former Rajapakse regime was relaxed somewhat.
One of the foremost challenges for Sri Lanka is to earn foreign exchange as it is still an underdeveloped country. The sectors spearheading this challenge are estate labour (on the tea plantations etc.), the garment industry and Middle East foreign employment. These are all sectors dominated by female labour. 52% of the population is women and they are considered to be the backbone of the Sri Lankan economy.
If we are to speak about Sri Lankan women, we must highlight the position of those employed in the tea industry in the Hill Country. Apart from the oppression faced by women as a whole they are subject to an additional disadvantage due to the fact that they are Tamils. The Tamil estate women labourers get the lowest income of women workers in the country. Wages are paid to them daily – less than Rs.500/= ($4). To qualify for this amount women must pluck and hand over a specified number of kilos of tender tea leaves daily.
Women labourers have to face a number of exceptional problems. The number of working days is cut if the weather is cold or rainy. When there is either drought or heavy rain, the number of hours of work gets reduced, resulting in a decrease in the output of plucked leaves, and consequently their pay.
When the number of tender tea leaves available is reduced, estate managers declare that the number of working days will be reduced. They have to work for 20 days to qualify for the full monthly wage. If they cannot get 20 days of work they cannot get full pay. Women estate labourers get only two weeks maternity leave. Neither the estates’ management nor the government provides sufficient facilities to look after children while the mother is working.
Estate management and the trade unions enter into annual wage negotiations but the traditional unions have so far been unable to negotiate a living wage for those workers.
The new Maithripala regime has failed to utter a single word about these people who have been subjected to severe exploitation. Even though a salary increase has been granted to public sector employees, the women labourers do not get even the minimum benefits enjoyed by women in other sectors. Hence the children who live on the estates encounter various difficulties. These children cannot go to school in the towns outside the estate limits due to poverty and discrimination. Even though they attend the schools on the estates they do not receive a comprehensive education. The estate schools are lacking in facilities when compared to other schools in the country. Less than 1% of the students in estate schools qualify for entry to university.
The unresolved problems of the women estate labourers have a history of more than 150 years since they were brought to Ceylon by British rulers. The estate labourers who have lived in a difficult environment since the era of British administration are still subjected to exploitation so that capitalism can gain more and more profits.
The women employed in the garment industry in the Free Trade Zones also lead a very difficult life. They start work in the early morning and they don’t know when they will finish. They have to work until management’s daily target is achieved. The short break for meals is the only free time these women workers get. There is a card system for the use of the toilets and the number of times they can be used is restricted. These women workers are subjected to an intensely difficult way at life.
Because of unemployment, even highly educated young women are employed in this sector. Women from very poor rural areas are boarded far away from home in tiny rooms like chicken coops. There is no proper security. Once the night shift is over, these young women have to go to their boarding houses. There have been a large number of incidents where young girls have been sexually assaulted on their way to their lodgings.
These women often cannot eat properly because of their low wages. So they are subject to ill-health. They have to pay rent and send money to sustain their families back home, so they are forced to eat food without any proper nourishment.
In this sector trade union membership is banned. If anyone does join a trade union she faces losing her job. When governments submit their annual budgets with increases in salaries, no attention is given to the workers in the garment industry. There is no legal framework for wage increases for private sector workers. Capitalist governments are not concerned about the welfare of the workers in the garment industry, even though it is a major avenue for the earning of foreign exchange.
Another very important and dangerous issue is that many women workers are employed in factories which use dangerous chemicals. There are frequent reports of young female workers afflicted with ill health as a result. There are more than enough labour laws in Sri Lanka but none are applied in the free trade zone. Most of the companies are owned by foreign multinational companies. Whenever they face a problem they quickly close the factory and the company management flees the country.
In the Middle East, Sri Lankan women workers face poor conditions. The former Rajapaksa regime introduced a special term: ’Rataviruwo’. This means you are a foreign hero. (They did same kind of thing for the soldiers after the war saying that they are ‘Ranaviruwo’.
But as domestic servants they suffer from violent attacks and sexual harassment from the house owners. Many workers have been badly hurt due to brutal assaults but many keep secret how they have suffered at the hands of the rich.
Back home there have been reports such as small children falling into wells because their mothers are away working in the Middle East. Other young children have become victims of sexual abuse. Women have left their own family behind to work as a house-maid to relieve the family from dire poverty, but their families still suffer back home.
Rizana Nafeek was disgracefully killed in Saudi Arabia. She was sent to the Middle East even though she was under age. That was due to the poverty of her family. Job agencies and the government do not value the lives of poor working class women who are sent to the Middle East. Capitalist governments do not wish to raise these problems internationally. They are more interested in their foreign relations.
Women in Sri Lanka in various sectors, undergo much oppression. But it is clear that under the capitalist system these problems cannot be entirely solved. We must organise amongst women around the ideas of changing the capitalist system. On this historically important women’s day we must adopt the slogan that with brave women like those above you we will be able to transform this corrupt system and establish a society based on socialist ideas including a programme for building widespread publicly-owned housing.