Work and Death in Sri Lanka’s Garment Industry

The belief that extreme measures are needed to get “back on track” has normalized draconian behaviour from managers towards workers in garment factories, while sanitary protection remains largely insufficient in the face of a third Covid-19 wave.

by | Jul 5, 2021

Sitting alone in a room containing two narrow beds and a small table, Priyangika is sick with COVID-19. She fell ill after the virus spread through the garment factory where she works in the vast Katunayake Free Trade Zone outside Colombo, Sri Lanka.

“When I called the owner of the boarding house to say I tested positive for coronavirus, he scolded me, saying that we bring filthy diseases,” said Priyangika, whose name has been changed to protect her anonymity.

Sri Lanka is home to some of the largest garment manufacturers in the world. Its central bank has reported a 183 percent rise in exports since April 2020 — largely attributed to the apparel sector. But even as wealthy nations in the West begin to open back up thanks to plentiful vaccines and hospital capacities, the island nation is currently experiencing a deadly third wave of COVID-19 and recently reported its highest single day of fatalities. In a globalized world of both virus transmission and clothing production, Sri Lanka’s garment workers are currently caught between production targets and destitution, sickness and increasing authoritarianism.

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This article was funded by the National Geographic Society.