Did NGOs just discover garment workers?


The NGO sector’s new found empathy for garment factory workers is another misdirect from the root of the problem.

The media was recently flooded with statements from NGO sector activists talking about the plight of garment factory workers amid the COVID-19 pandemic, especially after the discovery of a cluster of infections in a Brandix factory in Minuwangoda.

The narrative that has been pushed is that garment factory workers are facing extremely difficult conditions in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but more so due to the negligence of factory owners and government officials.

All of this is of course superficially true. But self-styled radical activists should note that to be “radical” means to go to the root of a thing. The plight of garment factory workers didn’t begin with the COVID-19 pandemic, and certainly won’t end after it. What we are seeing is a disaster that has been unfolding for over 30 years. 

Therefore, focusing critique almost entirely on the government and local contractors, is to ignore the proverbial elephant in the room – the Western states and multinational corporations like H&M and Levis who profit the most off of exploiting Sri Lankan garment workers.

Perhaps these radical activists have been blindsided by the fact that these same corporations and Western states are the ones who finance their NGOs and research grants. One NGO that campaigns exclusively for the rights of garment workers is funded by Canada. Does Canada really care about Sri Lankan garment workers? If they did, it would be simpler for them to force Canadian companies operating in Sri Lanka to reinvest their profits in better wages and welfare.

To understand Canada’s interest in financing NGOs, one needs to understand the Canadian economy, and it’s role in relation to the rest of the world. Alongside mining and manufacturing, Canada provides “peripheral services” like research and development, consultancy, and public relations for US companies.

With the COVID-19 pandemic causing global trade to decline by around 35 percent, workers lower down the “value chain” face the brunt of the impact. Local contractors who receive fewer orders will layoff workers on behalf of the foreign corporations at the top of the value chain.

This is where short-sighted NGO activism plays its role in keeping the people’s eyes off the ball. By narrowing the frame of inquiry to local contractors and the government, foreign corporations cutting quotas and refusing to pay outstanding bills get away scot-free. 

The PR nightmare then falls squarely on the shoulders of local contractors, and in some circumstances could even topple governments. Coincidentally, this is the same misdirection used in the outrage over stranded migrant workers. The Sri Lankan state bears all the blame, while the wealthy Gulf countries who profit from migrant workers are left unaccountable.

The biggest threat to Sri Lankan garment workers in the near future is not COVID-19 but automation, the technology for which already exists. In this regard, NGOised activists are woefully unprepared to say and do what is necessary to protect garment workers.

The bargaining power of workers is ultimately determined by the value they add in the process of production. “Productivity” may be a dirty word for some, but it is a big part of why workers in the West have access to better wages and welfare than in countries like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

In the long-run, raising the quality of life of garment workers requires a productivity focused skilling-up process which has been successfully implemented in countries like Vietnam, South Korea and China, where garment workers enjoy better pay and living conditions relative to Sri Lanka.

Improving the lot of garment workers means not just demanding for better wages and more welfare, but to move beyond the labor-intensive sweatshop model of production which leaves workers vulnerable to the whims of investors who can respond to strikes by relocating to countries where taxes and wages are lower, and labor supply is higher.

Unfortunately, NGOs and NGOised activism is not prepared to deal with these issues. This is a feature, not a bug, of the NGO model of activism. The funding for such idealistic adventurism exists to deflect the political fallout of exploitation away from the donors.

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