New book explores what happens to global garment workers once they leave their factory jobs

  • Date

    Wed 23 Sep 20

Book cover

Amazing tales of how some brave women have negotiated exciting new economic and social lives despite social, cultural barriers in their villages have been documented in a new book charting the post-global factory lives of Sri Lankan women.

For over 15 years, Essex sociologist Dr Sandya Hewamanne, has been researching their journeys and in her  latest book Restitching identities in rural Sri Lanka she reveals that despite enduring horrific working and living conditions, many of the women are able to build a better life for themselves and their families when they return to their home village.

Since the late 1970s, hundreds of thousands of young women – some as young as 16 – have left their rural homes to work in factories in Sri Lanka’s urban areas, mass producing goods for the western world.

But while profits have risen for the multi-national corporations and the local partners of these global assembly lines, set up to take advantage of the limited government interference afforded by Free Trade Zones (FTZ), for the workers life has not been so good.

Typically they are forced to work long hours for very little money, and a poor diet and living conditions lead to poor health for many. Over the years Dr Hewamanne, from the Department of Sociology at the University of Essex, has through her research impact activities, worked for better working conditions for these women.

Her new book provides a unique insight into their lives, as it follows some of them back to their villages to discover how they re-negotiate social and economic lives in more restrictive, patriarchal contexts.  

“I have been researching this book for over 15 years, and in it I track the lives of former global factory workers as prospective brides, young wives and mothers to local entrepreneurs and in many cases community leaders.

“I discovered that despite the difficulties they faced while working, when they return home, they are able to use skills and resources developed while working in the FTZ to become successful entrepreneurs and community leaders. They are also initiating gradual changes in rural social hierarchies and gender norms.

“For example, Kumudu who not only suffered difficult working conditions but also  suffered the added trauma of knowing how a group of young men played with her reputation and emotional health by betting on her virginity later became a successful entrepreneur and a woman with high social standing in her community shows the astute manipulation of all forms of capital that she had at her disposal, social, cultural and monetary. She has carved younger women an easier path to activities and roles that were formerly reserved for men,“ said Dr Dr Hewamanne.

The book, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, has already attracted favourable reviews. Ann Kingsolver of the University of Kentucky, said: "Sandya Hewamanne is a superlative ethnographer of former free-trade-zone garment workers who return to their villages all over Sri Lanka with independent earnings and networking skills that they use to craft well-being for more than themselves. Hewamanne's depiction of their 'politics of contentment' is a powerful contribution to feminist political economy.”