Sri Lanka

The Solidarity Center works with Sri Lankan trade unions and community organizations, assisting workers in export processing zones to secure a collective voice through unions, and aiding workers who migrate overseas for jobs.

Sri Lanka continues to recover from a long and brutal civil war (1983–2009) between the ruling Buddhist Sinhalese and the primarily Hindu Tamil minority. During the conflict, which penetrated all areas of society, more than 70,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands of Tamils were confined to refugee camps.

Following the government victory over the Tamils, civil society began to mend. Yet the environment for economic growth and investment has not yet translated into economic success for ordinary Sri Lankans. Only 56 percent of the working age population is employed, with unemployment rates highest among women and youth. About 9 percent of Sri Lankans live below the poverty line, and public spending on social safety net programs has decreased as a percentage of gross domestic product from 2.2 percent in 2004 to 0.3 percent in 2009.

Facing grinding poverty and lack of jobs, millions of Sri Lankans—24 percent of the nation’s workforce—are being driven from their homes and families to seek economic opportunities overseas. Nearly half of them are women. As low-wage workers, these women primarily take on domestic work in the Middle East, where they are typically not covered by labor laws and often become trapped in abusive employment situations.

By 2011, overseas migrant worker remittances became the largest contributor to Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange and totaled almost as much as the country’s entire annual export income, according to Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Foreign Employment. At the urging of trade unions working with the Solidarity Center and human rights advocates, Sri Lanka has implemented a variety of measures designed to inform and protect workers who leave the country for jobs.

In Sri Lanka’s export processing zones (EPZs), dominated by textile and garment industries, employers routinely delay union certification votes and fire union activists to prevent workers from joining unions. “Employee councils” are often set up as alternatives to unions, but are not independent of the employer. Even where collective bargaining takes place, the government can make strikes illegal by declaring any industry an “essential service.”

Between 70 percent and 80 percent of EPZ workers are women and they often are subject to long hours, sexual harassment and other exploitative working conditions. The Solidarity Center works with a variety of Sri Lankan trade unions and community organizations, assisting workers in light manufacturing and other industries to secure a collective voice through unions and improve wages, workplace safety and health and other fundamental rights on the job.