The era of the closed economy of the left oriented state of 1970- 1977 saw only the domestic garments under the Brand names of Hentley, Maxim, Benhur and later the Duro products of Dasa Industries.
Then came the liberalized economy under the JRJ government and awakened the Export oriented garment industries in the first Free Trade Zone with a workforce of 30000 female workers under the GCEC the present BOI at Katunayake.
The social implications and other infrastructures were not geared to meet the sudden change in the area. Health & Safety standards were thoroughly inadequate in a snake infested locality. Basic Human needs were neglected and the Iron fisted administration were naïve and forceful. The young members of the Armed forces roamed the area and young female workers who lived in Boarding houses were easy prey. Resulting pregnancies of unmarried singles and medical clinics springing up like mushrooms in the Katunayake and Negombo areas were the talk of the day. The scandals pouring out was the beginning of the irreparable permanent damage to the character of the female garment worker.
Availability of manpowerThe mainly Sinhala adult females from all over the country which comprised the workforce was freely available and queues of 1-2 kilometers length of young females thronged to the BOI Job bank from the BOI office to beyond perimeters of the zone fighting for a placement in any Garment factory in the Katunayake Zone. Applicants who possessed references from the State politicians were given pride of place while many were turned down to return to their villages.
Factory Managers’ authorityThe Board Room and Business acumen focused only on shipments and profits and the Factory Administration possessed absolute power to deliver the goods at any cost. This disastrous empowerment resulted in the neglect of basic Human and personal domestic needs of the largely female workforce.Performances of Factory Managers were recognized and rewarded by the Board Room on the money spinning revenue brought in and the factory staff shamelessly trod on the female workers bullying and battering them at every corner to get the optimum production at minimum costs aided by the ignorance of the top management to provide the basic facilities for Personal needs.
Personnel/HR Manager’s role and statusThe Personnel Managers were goaded by the top management and had to play the role of running round the factory hunting for wrongdoers and being used as the cats’ paw or the scape goat. The Personnel Managers now the HR Managers are the underdogs.
Except for a one or two companies the position of the HR Manager in the hierarchy is far below the average with no status or clout and report directly to the misdemeanors. Their salaries are below that of the other junior level staff resulting in low status and no respect from others for this very reason. Their indirect contribution to achieve company goals is not recognized nor are they consulted on any main issues. They are commanded to act on poor HR practices and these orders cannot be disobeyed or explained as incorrect.
The final say lay with an ignorant Factory Manager or General Manager whose interests are personal rewards and the good books of the top Management. The Top Management gropes in the dark and HR Issues are decided on hearsay of the Factory Manager or General Manager’s information. It was and still is a case of the blind leading the blind. Appreciation or confidence in the HR Manager or recognizing his/her capabilities does not exist.
Depletion of workforceThis scenario which continued for decades is still prevalent in the present day factories except for a few. HR continues to be blamed while the factory management continues to bully and batter the workers. Basic needs are granted but the most important personal domestic requirements are not recognized. The workers who migrated first from one factory to another within the Katunayaka Zone opted for other factories in other zones in later years. Thereafter the workers who rushed to garment industries for poverty and relief now find that earnings are not worth the sacrifice of their family life at home. They shun the garment industry.
Parents are reluctant to release their children to the industry as they are aware that they will lose their children forever and will not be able to get them close in times of illness or need or for any of their Personal family events. The already existing stigma on the characters of the garment workers added to the disregard of their domestic requirements have now made the entire country to shun the industry. Only the Estate labour who are way below poverty levels opt to work for a very short term temporarily in the industry.
The once long queues of the Sinhala workers are no more. A very thin margin of the Tamils are lured by company staff dishing out handbills on the roads in and around Colombo and in the distant and remote hill country competing with others in the industry to grab a would be recruit.
The Tamil workers from the hill country comprise 40 percent of the work force. The Sinhala workers are diminishing day-by-day. This estate labour now in the apparel industry is also getting depleted day by day as their personal wants and access to their families in the distant areas at times of need are not realized. Recognition of theTamil workers personal needs as relative to their place of abode and culture of the hill country is not taken into consideration. Many decades ago the December Holidays for Christmas was planned for. This slowly changed over to the Sinhala/ Hindu New year. However, no provision or planning is made for the mostly celebrated Tamil Deepavali festival.
Production planningProduction and shipments are planned in keeping with the European Climatic seasons but no provision is made to include any planning for HR requirements affecting the labour whether seasonal or otherwise. While only a handful of the Top management go that one step further to put things right the apathy of the Top Brass of the rest of the companies continue. Realistic absenteeism percentages arising from the Social needs of a mixed workforce are not recognized.
Whilst this drama continues to unfold the Buyers or Customers and the European community keep on increasing the pressure to keep strictly within the outdated labour laws for the betterment of the workers welfare and by doing so unwittingly contribute to an ever increasing predicament of the workers.
Financial lossLittle does the Top Management realize that continuous idling of 40 sewing machines per day deprives 40 m/cs X 10hours production X dollars of loss per day. In addition expenditure on maintenance of Dormitories and meals provided by the companies are colossal and Costs for extensive recruitment campaigns are unimaginable with no permanent returns.
ChangeIf the industry is to be prevented from going over the cliff to the quagmire by the death knell of the labour crisis an input of a drastic about change thinking is an urgency. If Kerry Packer could change the drab white uniformed game of cricket to a thrilling quick match then the Board Room should change attitudes to consult HR and not direct them and develop HR best practices to the highest levels to avert this crisis.