Sri Lanka: Women workers and the Gota Go Gama uprising

June 22, 2022
Workers at a garment factory in Sri Lanka. Photo: International Labour Organization Asia-Pacific

Since the Gota Go Gama (Gota Go Village) protests started in April demanding Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa resign, the ruling regime has made several changes in an attempt to remain in power. These included replacing the prime minister, cabinet and, more recently, appointing Dhammika Perera, one of Sri Lanka’s richest business owners, to head the finance ministry.

Despite this, the government is still struggling to arrest declining foreign reserves and pay for imports of essential goods such as food, fuel and medicines. There are long queues for fuel and intermittent power cuts, though the more privileged suburbs of Colombo have been spared.

Perera emerged as a leading capitalist through his alliances with politicians from the main political parties. He owns three of the nation’s five casino licenses and was head of the Board of Investments between 2007–10, which focuses on promoting foreign investment through a range of subsidies, including access to Free Trade Zones (FTZs), also known as Export Processing Zones.

Launched in 1978, FTZs were instrumental to expanding Sri Lanka’s manufacturing sector. Factories in these zones mainly produce garments and operate as part of global production networks controlled by trademark brands based in the Global North. The largest FTZ, Katunayake, was established in 1978 and is located near the capital, Colombo, with access to shipping and airport facilities.

One of the FTZs key attractions for foreign investment is the provision of a low-wage, compliant labour force. This labour force is largely comprised of young women who work there for 5–10 years before returning to their home villages or towns.

The factory work is gruelling, with extreme production targets, harsh penalties, long hours and little rest. Once the work day is done, workers retreat to nearby crowded boarding houses.

FTZ workers have agitated for better wages and conditions since their inception but union activity is restricted. However, there are some unions that operate in FTZs, alongside non-government organisations such as the Women's Centre (WC).

WC leader Padmini Weerasuriya spoke to Green Left about the unfolding popular uprising and women workers’ struggles.

How are women workers in FTZs connecting with the peoples’ protests at Gota Go Gama?

We have been struggling for women workers’ rights since 1982. At the beginning, they said they were going to create 100,000 jobs with the Katunayake FTZ, but even today they still haven’t achieved that. As a whole, this job creation strategy have been a failure.

Because they want low-wage, obedient workers, especially women workers, they neglected the rights of these workers, who mostly come from rural areas. They neglected a range of problems, such as gender-based violence, male harassment, inadequate wages, lack of holidays and so on.

Some of these women workers were qualified to go to university, but could only get factory work. Some have been promoted to positions of productive skilled workers, but their wages remained low.

We can’t say that this [current] crisis emerged because of COVID-19. It’s mainly because of these rulers’ dismal economic management.

The previous government [of President Maithripala Sirisena (2015–19)] tried to provide some relief, because it came to power with the support of unions and a range of civil society organisations. It brought in the 19th Amendment [which diluted the powers of the presidency] and established independent commissions to investigate government corruption, but it was also implicated in money laundering scandals.

This enabled the Rajapaksa regime to return to power. Given Mahinda Rajapaksa [president between 2005–15] had lost popularity, they selected [his brother] Gotabaya, a military person with no political experience, to run for president.

Once in power, Gotabaya appointed military personnel to a number of districts as administrators. We have a good public administration, with knowledgeable men and women. But this military mentality created a whole lot of problems by undermining the public administration and making the country dysfunctional.

He brought in a new constitutional amendment to concentrate power in his hands and began ruling like a dictator. One of the key things he did was to cut taxes, which reduced public revenue.

Meanwhile, the country was losing foreign exchange [due to tourism being affected by the Palm Sunday Bombing and reduced remittances from migrant workers as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic]. We are a globally recognised tourist destination, but he ruined that and a lot of people lost their jobs.

All this affected the youth. Their university education was disrupted. Most of these uni students come from poor rural families. They lost opportunities for employment. Even rich middle-class youth couldn’t get dollars to go abroad and study. They saw Gota [Gotabhaya] as the culprit of their suffering and demanded that he resign, that he go home.

There have been power cuts and shortages, but the power cuts did not affect the president’s residence. So people couldn’t tolerate this any more.

There was a group of women, led by a female opposition politician, that first protested in front of the president’s residence. The electricity cuts particularly affected women, who were engaged in all the care work in households.

There were also petty-bourgeois, middle-class people who came out to protest. They mobilised independently of political parties and engaged in a silent protest. These were educated and creative young people.

This protest then moved from the president’s residence to Galle Face, a few suburbs away. There they set up Gota Go Gama.

Those in the forefront were not people experienced in social protests or activism, but some of them were children of parents who had experienced in activism, as well as state repression. So these young people have a new strength. This is not some off-the-cuff protest. Some of them carry their parents’ suffering with them. This is a new development.

We supported this party-independent struggle. On May 1, International Workers’ Day, the WC, along with other unions, held a public rally of around 1200 workers in Colombo. From there, we went to Gota Go Gama. The union also presented a set of proposals on the political reforms that are needed.

Some women workers from FTZs go to Gota Go Gama on Saturday, spend the day there and return on Sunday. Or they go on Sunday and return to work on Monday. Even women workers from the Koggala FTZ, on the south of the island, have come.

We continue to support the uprising. We have to give young people the opportunity. We have lots of educated, intelligent young people.

We have to change the system. That’s for sure.

How is this crisis impacting workers in the FTZs?

Before this crisis, we were faced with the COVID-19 pandemic. During the first two COVID-19 waves, some companies closed while others cut jobs. We lost a lot of secure jobs. There were around 30,000 casual workers who lost their jobs.

Casualisation has increased in the past decade and a majority of workers are now casual. They work for day’s wages or week’s wages. But boarding house owners wanted workers to leave if they couldn’t get a monthly wage.

In the first waves of COVID-19, there was a nearly three-week shutdown throughout the country, but these workers had to work despite their demands for leave. During the last two waves, these workers were seen as important for accessing foreign exchange, so a few employers gave out monthly bonuses of Rs.5000 or Rs.10,000 [$20–40] without raising wages.

But with this crisis, they still fear they might lose their jobs because brands have threatened to leave due to the political and economic instability. So our space to negotiate and raise worker grievances is limited.

Could you explain some of the activities you are currently engaged in?

We continue to organise workers in Katunayake and Koggala. We have also expanded to rural areas, such as Vavuniya in the north. We also work with other women’s organisations in tea plantation areas.

We engage in a range of women worker issues, through seminars and workshops. We focus on worker rights, increasing awareness of labour rights and International Labour Organisation conventions, women’s rights and human rights. We have also done a project on reproductive health.

With the current situation, we have decided to expand beyond the factories to engage with other women workers. So we are now focusing on working with the LGBT+ community, sex workers and women with disabilities.

How does organising women workers and the present popular uprising challenge Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism?

Two years ago, when Gotabaya was first elected, he openly claimed that he came to power on the Sinhala votes. By saying this, he sowed the seeds of nationalist chauvinism.

But we have been fighting against this for a long time. We went to Jaffna [a Tamil-majority province in the north] in 2005, before the provincial council elections. There were about 100 of us, from the Mothers and Daughters of Lanka, a multi-ethnic women’s network. We went to three different districts with local Tamil women to promote the Tamil National Alliance.

There are other unions and civil society organisations building inter-ethnic solidarity in the north as well as the east.

We have to highlight that Sinhala-Buddhist politicians are responsible for the post-1983 anti-Tamil violence. They used Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism at every election to come to power. But, now, with the popular uprising, they have to realise that they won’t be able to use national chauvinism to come to power.

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