Malani: My life as a garment worker making Adidas sportswear in Sri Lanka

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Struggling for workers' rights in Sri Lanka

Malani: My life as a garment worker making Adidas sportswear

Malani* has worked for an Adidas supplier in Sri Lanka for the last three years. She makes Adidas t-shirts and three-quarter length trousers. Malani is an active trade unionist. This is her story...

'I wake up at about 4.00am, so I don't have to queue for the well. This is the only place we have to bathe at my boarding house. There's no bathroom or private space.

Bathing facility at Malani's boarding house

'I leave for work at about 6.00am. When I leave and when I get home, it's pitch dark and as you can see, there's no lighting on the path from the road to the boarding house, so it doesn't feel very safe.

'I start work at 7.00am. I work as a 'jumper', which means I have to operate different machines and work on different parts of the garment production process (1). For example, sewing a collar onto a t-shirt or stitching a 'top-line' [double hem] around the top of a t-shirt. I spend a lot of time sitting down in my job, and after 20 years of being a garment worker, I suffer with chronic back pain. We do get breaks - I get a 10-minute tea break in the morning and afternoon, and half an hour for lunch.

'I finish work at 6.00pm - which includes two hours overtime. I work five days a week and sometimes at weekends. I have to work overtime and some weekends to make ends meet.

'I get home from work at about 6.40pm. I might tidy up and do some washing. I don't usually cook an evening meal - I have a glass of milk instead, to save money. My basic wage is Rs9,600 (£56) per month. I didn't realise I get Rs700 (£4) extra for being a jumper (2). With overtime - I take home about Rs13,965 (£79.60) a month (3). I'm the main breadwinner for my family and send home about Rs7,000 (£40) each month. My family lives in the countryside, about 135Km from me, and my father is a farmer. I migrated here to find work. But, one of my relatives hasn't been very well recently, so I've been going home every weekend to see them. I never go out socially, because I can't afford it, and I've never been to the cinema.

Malani's room where she sleeps and cooks

'At work, there is a code of conduct (4) displayed in Sinhala, Tamil and English, and it clearly states that the right to freedom of association should be respected. But there is no trade union in my factory. I think workers are too frightened to join a union, fearing they will be sacked.

'At my last factory, some of us were members of the Free Trade Zones and General Services Employees Trade Union (FTZ&GSEU). Initially there was no union in the factory, but with pressure from some sourcing brands, a union branch was set up. But, my involvement in union activities led to me being victimized by my managers and I was eventually suspended from work. The FTZ&GSEU filed a complaint, but the company closed down before this was resolved.

'I'm still very involved in FTZ&GSEU activities. I'm often busy speaking at workshops, rallies and seminars - I think it's really important that workers know about their rights, and what unions can do to help us win better pay and working conditions.'

You can support the struggles of workers like Malani for Decent Work by getting involved in the Playfair 2012 campaign and taking the action which calls on Adidas, Nike and Pentland (makers of Speedo) to pay a living wage; respect the right to form/join a union, have no forced overtime, and provide job security.

*The worker interviewed did not want her real name to be used. This interview was carried out by the TUC and FTZ&GSEU in Sri Lanka as part of a joint project.


(1) A 'jumper' is considered a highly skilled position requiring knowledge of how to operate different machinery involved in the production process. There are different grades relating to this position.

(2) Malani's pay slip is in English and has a number of different items listed on it. She did not understand how here salary was calculated until this interview.

(3) A living wage in Sri Lanka has been estimated at around Rs23,500 (£130). On a basic wage of Rs9,600, Malani and her family would have to survive on around $2.92 a day; the UN global poverty line is $2 a day. Adidas sales reached record levels of £10.6 billion in 2011, and Herbert Hainer, the company's CEO received a compensation package of £4.3 million in 2010. Malani would have to work for 6,000 years to earn what Mr. Hainer earned in one year.

(4) Malani is referring to Adidas' code of conduct on workplace standards.

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