Sri Lanka: Garment factory workers and ID

Hélène Smertnik
Oct 10 · 7 min read

Hélène Smertnik and Savita Bailur

By and large, Sri Lanka is a country where ID does work for women. Access and ownership of ID credentials is prevalent in Sri Lanka where people obtain ID at the age of 16, when passing their school exams. This is possible thanks to a good education system as well as efficient ID registration processes that include more vulnerable groups (including domestic workers). The counterpoint of this functioning system is that ID is almost taken for granted, as people do not face ID challenges when accessing services and work.

In this context and as part of the Commonwealth Identity Initiative, we conducted interviews with women and men, in Colombo and its outskirts to understand the role of ID in enabling women to access work and to retain and control their own income. In this blog, we share insights from our Sri Lanka fieldwork on the segment of garment factory workers.

Overall, we found that:

  • ID is a requirement to work in factories but as it is widespread, it isn’t what stops women from working in this sector;
  • Non-contracted daily work provides a flexibility (e.g. not working every day) for some women, in particular when becoming mothers, but loose work structures allow underage employment to occur (see Navodika’s video interview);
  • Financial inclusion comes with stable work and income and not solely from having an ID.

ID is required to work in factories and getting it is generally not a problem

“They [factory managers] asked for the identity card, Village Headman’s certificate, bio-data, school leaving certificate and all that was provided. It’s true I did not have the Village Headman’s certificate so I had to go back to my hometown to get it but that was easy — as long as the headman knows you and that your name is on the electoral register.” Dinesha, a 22 year old garment factory worker.

All the women we interviewed had been asked for their ID credentials when applying for work in factories and, in the majority of cases, they were able to produce them. Having an ID is enough of a priority in Sri Lanka — due to security more than work reasons — that most people have their documents with them. And if they do not, they are able to get them fairly swiftly, as Dinesha explained, provided they are known in the area they live in.

In fact, factory management is stringent on ID requirements for permanent employees. Not only do they ask for several different ID credentials, i.e. not only the National ID, but they often will keep them.

“They take the originals of all these documents and release them when we are leaving. They took the school leaving certificate,a letter of reference — everything. They want to control and make sure they can keep us from leaving without notice.” Shirone, 35, permanent factory worker.

After a 6 month to one year probation period the workers we spoke to said they receive a gate pass which will allow them to go about the factory premises freely.

A factory zone pass. Photo credit: H.Smertnik

However, some nuances of discrimination are evident — Tamil workers mentioned that management would ask them to keep their ID at all times, in addition to the pass.

“We have to show our ID and the gate pass everytime we go in and out, because we come from Jaffna and are Tamil, whereas others [Sinhala] just show their pass.” Asin, 19

Non-contract “daily work” can be a conscious choice for some women

Shermila, in her house as she comes back from work. Photo credit: H. Smertnik

“Considering that as a permanent worker in Katunayake I would earn 28,000Rs ($155) per month for very hard work — long hours of work and being under pressure and aggression — it is fine for me to earn only 20–25,000Rs ($110 — $140) and have less stress and more flexibility as a daily worker.” Shermila, 39

In addition to the lack of commitment to very hard work described by Shermila and Udeshika, daily workers mentioned other advantages:

  • Flexibility such as increased leave compared to permanent, contracted work — more conducive to raising and caring for a family;
  • Quick access to money through daily cash payments, while permanent workers are by default paid monthly, through bank transfers.

However, working through manpower agencies also means fewer checks, which we discuss next.

Non-contracted work can come with risks

We heard from respondents that manpower agencies can overlook underage employment. If an under-age potential employee shows her ID, some agencies will either accept it or suggest she uses another ID, such as their siblings or a fake one. One NGO worker suggested that some agencies kept IDs in a drawer for those cases of workers without ID. Factories can also be in collusion with this situation:

Young Tamil women working in the Katunayake factory zone. Photo credit: H. Smertnik

“I’ve worked since 16. I have my ID and it says my age. When the management sees that, they don’t give you the ‘formal factory pass’, instead you get a white pass — which in a way shows that you aren’t fully eligible to working as an employee.” B Sumuduni, 20

Of course, this may be useful for the under-age girl who wants to work and earn, but puts her at risk. Another NGO worker told us how a young girl had been burnt at work but because of her fake ID, didn’t receive any help:

“She had got work in a factory with a fake ID. When she got burned with some chemicals she needed money for new clothes, the factory refused to help her because they said she wasn’t who she said she was. So we are trying to help her.”

Lack of social protection is a risk, and many daily workers did not have pension and welfare plans.

Navodika’s story (link to video) illustrates this precarious position further, from her using her sister’s ID to another fake one, to the extent she didn’t even know her name was being called out to on “pay day” because it was the name on the fake ID she was using.

Offering a more flexible, less committed approach to work in factories provides an alternative to permanent employment for many of the women interviewed, in particular when they become mothers and have care for their children. However, the ID loopholes need to be examined and addressed — especially to protect children who may work under-age.

ID means access to formal financial services but doesn’t necessarily lead to further financial inclusion

Permanent workers, on the other hand, are paid monthly into bank accounts directly and contribute a part of their salary to social schemes (pension and welfare). Permanent workers we spoke with also seemed to try to save and sometimes have the confidence to take loans given the greater stability of their work, compared to daily workers.

“My son plays cricket and is in the school team. My biggest dream is that he continues at school and gets educated. So when he needed to buy a bat, I got a loan because it was about Rs 50,000 [$280]. I have to pay that off for months.” Deepika, 42

“I took a loan to build a house and I can repay it in 5 years. I did it at a time where I had saved quite a bit because I had done lots of overtime work. Now, overtime has lessened and I do feel the pinch. To get the loan, I showed my ID and had two guarantors — women who work with me and earn a regular salary.” Nayana, 28

Comparing these two situations highlights that ID — though the critical first step to access formal financial services — doesn’t necessarily lead to financial inclusion. Some level of stability at work seem to be a bigger factor in encouraging women to save and take loans than is having an ID.

Takeaways and thoughts

  • Loopholes or “shady practices” in identity verification still exist — especially by smaller intermediaries such as manpower agencies. The role of these ID intermediaries needs to be researched more.
  • Lack of financial inclusion is not directly related to ID (because most women do have ID) but other factors, such as needing cash immediately, not having time to go to the bank or not seeing the value of pensions and more long-term benefits.

Caribou Digital is publishing a series on insights derived from our research* on women, work and ID in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. This is the third of our blogs from Sri Lanka. Previous blogs are here:

Initial findings from Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka: Domestic worker and ID

And Bangladesh findings are here.

*This research is funded by Australia’s Department for Foreign Affairs and Trade, via its support for the Commonwealth Digital ID Initiative. We would like to express our thanks to all our respondents, the DFAT iXc team, DFAT Sri Lanka, Sparkwinn Research, Big Blue Communication, the NGO Stand Up Movement, and our advisory panel for their support.

Caribou Digital

Caribou Digital: building ethical inclusive digital economies

Hélène Smertnik

Written by

Research consultant at Caribou Digital

Caribou Digital

Caribou Digital: building ethical inclusive digital economies

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