In a war inflicted country some emerge as heroes while others are dealt to survive with the remains. Sri Lanka has a population of 19 million that consists of Sinhalese, the majority ethnic group, and Tamils and Muslims as minority groups. Over 50 percent of the population and the labour force of 6.6 million are women.
The contributing factors to the GDP of the country are tourism, tea plantation, textile and apparel industry, and agriculture. The women are the backbone of these economic sectors.
Firstly social pressures such as early marriage were faced by young girls and are common in districts of Polonnaruwa, Hambantota and Moneragala. As in most war situations, during the civil war between the armed forces and the LTTE, women lived sheltered lives until they were forced to work to survive and feed their children. The three decade fight left 80000 and more war widows inhabiting the north and eastern part of Lanka.
A Jaffna based non-profit group named Centre for Women and Development (CWD) found that there were 40,000 female headed households and 20,000 more in the Jaffna district itself.
According to Association for War-Affected Women (AWAW) many employers are taking advantage of the situation and paying less than US $1 per day. Women sometimes are employed by contractors who find them as cheap labour.
A drastic change in the economic development was recorded as the opening of Export Processing Zone (EPZ) or Free trade Zone (FTZ) in 1978. Its objectives were to attract foreign investments and industries, expand exports, earn foreign currency and generate employment. Investors mostly from Europe, America and East Asian countries were lured by offers of labour relaxation laws ,long tax holidays etc. But the main attraction was the submissive workforce of semi-literate women who could be exploited for low wages work.
The policies regarding stipend in these foreign companies were unjust. Reporting to work a few minutes late resulted in no monthly attendance incentive. Their total leave was 21 days per annum. The government granted funds for utilizing large spaces and big buildings for the companies but did not include provision of quarters for the workers travelling from rural places. Travelling at night for women was dangerous and most of them slept on the factory floors.
Another sector that benefitted during the liberalization of economy was the hotel sector. Both the EPZ and hotel sector involved working long hours and even overtime hours.
In those times no trade union had enough power to fight for labour rights. In the 1980s women workers tried to form unions while they were attacked by military forces or the government. The women workers turned to more experienced workers to form a union that came to be known as Ceylon Mercantile Union. The Free Trade Zones & General Services Employees Union (FTZ&GSEU) began leading the campaign for the rights of workers in Sri Lanka's free trade zones in 1982.
The laws that apply to working women now in Sri Lanka are Factories Ordinance of 1950 and the laws that protect women in working environment are Employment of Women, Young Persons and Children Act of 1956 and subsequent amendments. They ensure that women are protected and provided reasonable earnings for the type of work they are employed.