In Sri Lanka, where the union movement faces challenges familiar to many union activists around the world—a shift from industrial to service jobs and a related decline in union membership—strategic online outreach is drawing young workers and expanding union membership.
Launched in 2013, the website Wedabima (“workflow” in Sinhalese), offers an interactive platform for workers to share comments, learn about union-related workshops and access a labor perspective on daily news unavailable in the mainstream press. The site also has mobilized workers to action—after Wedabima raised concern over the potential for a memorandum of understanding between Sri Lanka and China to weaken labor laws in Sri Lanka, workers and their unions joined to bring the issues to national attention. As a result, the Sri Lankan government has asked unions to submit an analysis of a potential bilateral agreement. The site, now in Sinhalese, will expand to Tamil in coming months.
“We are able to reach a vast audience we weren’t able to before,” says Mohamed Sha, a lawyer and worker rights activist who helped launch the project with the Solidarity Center in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital. The Wedabima and related Facebook site draw thousands of visitors, nearly all of whom work in the service sector, a rapidly growing industry where job growth is outpacing the country’s traditional export manufacturing sector.
Making unions attractive to young workers in Sri Lanka’s booming tourism industry is especially key, says Sha, because national income from tourism is on track to overtake the garment sector, which now makes up a large percentage of Sri Lanka’s export earnings. Another goal involves empowering current union members to take a more active role in their unions. Wedabima staff interviews lower-level leaders and posts these video or written interviews on the site, raising their profile to the extent that several are now well-known as leaders in their unions.
The website’s latest feature is geared toward the more than 2 million Sri Lankans who work abroad. The site provides migrant workers, who work in a wide variety of jobs, with contact information for the Embassy of Sri Lanka and other organizations that can assist migrant workers in countries where the majority are employed, such as in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The site also includes information about their legal rights in each country. Sha says the site will also be linked with a national radio program for migrant workers to expand resources and outreach available to workers.
Building a website does not guarantee an audience, and Sha says that an essential component of drawing workers to the new site involved hands-on outreach to the Asia Pacific Network, an intergovernmental group whose young, tech-savvy members helped spread the word about Wedabima’s resources. Those resources also include the latest music downloads, entertainment news and even recipes—features that bring visitors back to the site even when they are not looking for labor-related information.
With its many features and platforms, such digital outreach aims for a very traditional goal:
“We’re trying to cultivate activists,” says Sha.