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Published Date: October 30, 2013

Published Date: October 30, 2013

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Recognizing the Women Workers of Sri Lanka

Jasmine Obeyesekere Fernando hails from Colombo, Sri Lanka where she worked for 6 years on the national staff team of the Fellowship of Christian University Students (FOCUS), a national evangelical organization working within the universities of Sri Lanka. She has a B.A.  in English from the University of Peradeniya , Sri Lanka and a M.A. in International Relations from Syracuse University. Jasmine is currently a volunteer for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, helping to plant a graduate and faculty chapter at the State University of New York (SUNY) Albany, and also serves on the board of FOCUS, Sri Lanka.  She is married to her husband Guy and has two children, Jayathri and Yannik.

Much of the economy of Sri Lanka runs on the hard work of low wage earning women. These women who are from lower social strata of society contribute significantly to the national economy, but their role and contribution are underemphasized and undervalued. Garments and tea are Sri Lanka’s chief exports, bringing in the highest revenues for the country. Women constitute the majority of the labor force in the garment factories and the tea estates. At least 75% of the workforce in the tea industry consists of women and girls laboring on the hills and plucking the leaves for a world-renowned cup of Ceylon tea. Women also make up well over 75% of the workforce of the garment industry, performing their function in the assembly line and producing International brands such as Gap, Marks & Spencer and Victoria’s Secret. Most of the clothing is exported to the United States and Europe.

A fair proportion of the nation’s wealth also comes from its worker remittances from overseas. Many of these remittances are the earnings of housemaids. Out of Sri Lanka’s population of approximately 20 million, about 800,000 women (i.e. 4% of the population/8% of all females) work abroad as housemaids. These women are dispersed all over the Middle East and parts of East Asia. In terms of economic prosperity, the migrant women workers are better off than the others as they earn better wages. Long term there are visible symbols of their prosperity in terms of houses built, appliances and jewelry owned, and other status symbols acquired. Even though they prosper financially, often it is at great emotional and social cost. On average a woman needs to work abroad for about 7 years. The earnings of the first couple of years go towards paying off the debts she incurs towards her travel.  Only thereafter can she begin to provide economic security for her family. Generally, the parenting of the children left behind fall on the shoulders of other women in the extended family, often the grandmothers. The effect on many children with an absent mother has not yet been fully studied, but some children have been subject to sexual abuse by male relatives.

Additionally, the teaching and nursing professions are predominantly staffed by women. Women work in the public and private sectors, in non-profits and academia. A significant number of women stay at home too, as unpaid family care givers. Yet in our psyche we envisage ‘worker’ most often as male! Even after producing the world’s first female prime minister!

When the overwhelming majority of the workforces in the two highest export earning industries are women and there is a large contingent of women employed abroad sending their money home, it is disconcerting to observe that people’s image of ‘worker’ is generally male. Sri Lanka celebrates International Workers’ Day on May 1st every year, and several workers’ rallies are held with great crowd energy. However, most of the leaders and people participating in these marches and celebrations are men.

I believe that a chief reason that the ‘worker’ is still imagined as mostly male is because many of these women workers are hidden from the public eye.  We rarely remember the housemaids unless one of them has a horrific ‘accident’ at the hands of her employer and the incident is splashed all over the media. The tea pluckers on the plantations are likewise hidden from view; an occasional, picturesque sight on scenic holiday get-aways far from the busy centers of commerce. While we do see the women factory workers in garment industries all over the country, the male youth slang for a female garment factory worker is garment kaella (garment piece). This is not helped by the slang for girlfriend, baduwa (thing), to begin with.

Christ-followers need to recognize the important contribution that Sri Lankan women workers make to the national economy and make ourselves aware of other such hidden women workers that drive the global economy. The Sri Lankan church has been involved in advocacy for the geographically, ethnically, and linguistically distinctive Tea Estate workers who have been working generationally in this sector for close to 150 years. How can we work towards unveiling the invisibility of women workers in our varied national conversations?

Taking the trouble to find out who the workers are that drive our own national economies is a good place to start. Raising awareness among the general public is another. We can support businesses that treat workers well and boycott those that don’t. Companies try not to offend their customers and are interested in being seen as socially responsible.  We can collaborate with people who don’t always share our faith but share our value of justice for the marginalized.

In Old Testament Israel we see God making provision to protect the most vulnerable in society; the widow, the orphan and the stranger. Specific laws are to govern the Israelites’ economic life. They are to deliberately not harvest the full yield, but leave some for their poor to harvest and survive on (Deut 24:19-21). The survival of the poor takes precedence over maximizing profit.

In Genesis 1 & 2 the dominant picture of God is that of a worker. Part of being created in the image of God is to be able to engage in meaningful work. We need to unlearn our prejudices and value the dignity of all good work and treat our working men and women with respect.

Who are the hidden or overlooked women workers in your corner of the world?

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