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Presbyterian Mission Agency delegation travels to Sri Lanka in fulfillment of General Assembly overture

Group takes first steps in eradicating slavery from supply chains

by Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service

Sri Lanka is an island nation in the Indian Ocean off the Southern Coast of India. Until 1972 it was known as Ceylon. Fishing is an important part of the island’s economy. (Photo by Kathy Melvin)

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — A group representing several ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) visited Sri Lanka in January in fulfillment of an overture aimed at eradicating slavery from supply chains. Program representatives included personnel from Presbyterian World Mission, the Presbyterian Hunger Program and Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI).

Overture 10–01 was passed at General Assembly 222 (2016) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in Portland, Oregon, and directs the ministries and agencies of the denomination to “begin taking steps as consumers, as investors, and as followers of Jesus Christ, to help ensure that the scourge of slavery is eradicated, at least, for the supply chains of those with whom we do business.”

The group was hosted by PMA’s global partner, the National Christian Churches in Sri Lanka (NCCSL), whose goal is to confront the human rights issues and fair labor practices in two of the nation’s primary economic strongholds, tea plantations and the garment industry.

Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1948 and was renamed Sri Lanka in 1972. The tea industry was introduced to the country in the late 1800s by the British and in 1995 Sri Lanka became the world’s leading exporter of tea. Although workers at the tea plantations are not considered “forced labor,” most will never make enough money to break the cycle of poverty for themselves for their family.

The garment industry is Sri Lanka’s leading industry, responsible for about 45 percent of total exports. There are more than 900 factories, exporting goods mostly to the United States and the United Kingdom serving major name brands such as Victoria’s Secret, Tommy Hilfiger and Liz Claiborne. The factories are considered better than many other Asian countries. According to Sri Lanka’s export board, “Sri Lanka is socially responsible and a preferred destination for apparel sourcing and is the only outsources apparel manufacturing country in Asia to ratify all 27 International Labor Board (ILO) conventions … free of discrimination, sweatshop practices and child labor.”

Despite the availability of good jobs, there is a chronic shortage of labor in the garment industry and the turnover rate is staggeringly high, due in some part to the country’s cultural norms. Men are the head of the household and handle money. Women are expected to enter into marriage and stay home to cook and raise children. All servers in the hospitality industry are men. Women are not allowed to buy or serve alcohol. Younger women come to work in the garment industry in Colombo, but many are asked to return to their villages to marry. Others become homesick and don’t return to the manufacturing facilities after holiday breaks.

Substantial numbers of working-age women are recruited to travel to oil-rich countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait as domestic help. Some women make fair wages and are able to return home and buy both luxuries and necessities for their family. Others are not so lucky.

Some disreputable recruiters confiscate women’s passports upon landing at the airport and the women essentially become slaves of the employers. Some are beaten, some given only one meal a day, and many are paid little or never paid. The women have no standing in the country and have no passport to return to their home countries.

Tourism is Sri Lanka’s third-largest industry, but because it is culturally inappropriate for Sri Lankan women to work in the service industry, women are coming to the country in large numbers from India, Bangladesh and Nepal. The ILO estimates as many as 200,000 people are coming to work in the service or in garment industries, but the government reports that only about 25,000 work permits have been issued. This lack of accountability is a cause of continued concern.

Ethnicity has contributed to cultural unrest in Sri Lanka. In the early 1800s, there were about 3 million Sinhalese, who are mostly Buddhist. When the UK colonialized then-Ceylon, the government brought in about a million Tamil, mostly Hindu, from India to work on the coffee, tea and rubber plantations. A civil war officially ended between the two ethnic groups in 2009, but the minority population Tamil still feels discriminated against on many levels. There are an estimated 16 million Sinhalese and about 6 million Tamil. Today, as a way of leveling the playing field, all signs are printed in Sinhalese, Tamil and English.

PC(USA) partner NCCL is working with the Sri Lanka Malaha Tamilar Rights Coalition (SLMTRC), a group advocating for the rights of the Malayaha Tamilar community, and last year worked to prepare a Universal Periodic Review of Sri Lanka, assessing the human rights situation of the minority community.

“Sri Lanka has provided a home to PC(USA) mission co-workers for years. The country is not without its challenges,” said Mienda Uriarte, World Mission’s coordinator for Asia and the Pacific. “But this tiny island nation is strong and resilient. Many of the people we encountered have forged positive pathways that provide opportunities for individuals to honor their families while providing for them. I am so glad we could make this trip and look forward to nurturing the relationship with our global and ecumenical partners in Sri Lanka.”

“In spite of all the hardships that Sri Lanka went through after 26 years of civil war followed with a very strong regime, the country and its people are beautiful, strong, hard-working and very hopeful for their future,” said Valery Nodem, PMA’s associate for international hunger concerns. “There are many reasons why the country deserves its name, ‘The wonder of Asia.’”

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