The apparel sector is finding it hard to remain competitive with the loss of trade concessions to the European Union, an appreciating rupee and rising energy costs.
However, many factories turning out top international branded garments for high-end retail chains have been able to improve production processes increasing cost efficiency and reducing their environmental footprint.
But the industry, predominantly employing women, is finding it difficult to attract enough labour as it has failed to fight the social stigma attached to women working in garment factories.
Ms. Ramya Weerakoon, Chairperson Trendyear Pvt Ltd and Council Member, Sectoral Head, National Chamber of Commerce (NCE), said the most difficult thing was for the industry to find enough workers.
"We need to raise the awareness of people because the most difficult thing for us is trying to find enough workers. There is a shortage of labour in the industry. There is no point in investing in green factories, sophisticated machinery and renewable energy sources if there are no workers to run the production facilities," she told a recent press conference organised last week by the NCE to highlight the problems faced by the export sector.
"The problem started with the free trade zones and the women were being called ‘Juki girls’ (in a derogative way) and a negative impression of them was created," she said.
"But this is no longer the case. Many women have found rewarding employment. Free transport and meals are also provided in many factories. We have to create awareness that working in a garment factory is a respectable job."
Ms. Weerakoon said just as much as migrant housemaids buoyed Sri Lanka’s balance of payments, women working in garment factories were able to uplift their lives and communities.
Women often flocked to the free trade zones to escape poverty. There, they were vulnerable to exploitation in the workplace. Working conditions were poor and living conditions were equally bad. They were also vulnerable to sexual exploitation outside the factories as men found them to be easy pray, and thus ‘Juki girl’ came to be a derogative for loose women.
Over the years, the apparel industry took pains to improve working conditions and claim that core international labour standards are being enforced in a majority of factories, if not all. The industry a few years ago launched an international campaign which branded garments produced in Sri Lanka as ‘Garments without Guilt’.
Industrialists said this campaign, together with high quality finish, had helped Sri Lanka secure orders from top retailers, even after the Multi Fibre Agreement was phased out and Sri Lanka had to compete with other cheaper sources.
However, the social stigma prevailed and two years ago the Joint Apparel Associations Forum and Board of Investments launched a media campaign in a bid to erasing the ‘unfair’ stigma.
The young women who were the lifeblood of the industry and the country’s economy had been unfairly treated by society by attaching a stigma on them. In most cases, they were not considered marriageable.
According to latest data available, apparel export earnings grew 3.7 percent during the eleven months ending November 2010 reaching US$ 3,038.4 million from US$ 2,930 million a year ago.
Some small and medium apparel manufacturing factories have closed down over the past few years as a result of tough times before the global economic meltdown broke in 2008 with buying officers here finding it difficult to meet orders.
According to one industry annalist, about 200 factories had closed down over between 2006 and 2008.
The industry directly employs around 280,000 to 300,000 individuals with one million dependents while a further 750,000 were indirectly employed. A high percentage of those employed by the industry are women.