The COVID-19 Pandemic and Informalised Migrant Apparel Workers in Sri Lanka
In March 2022, I sat with a group of informal women apparel workers in the Katunayake export
processing zone. The worst effects of the pandemic were still settling in, and the country had just declared
itself bankrupt, having defaulted its foreign debts. I could not help but worry about the fate of these
women in these extremely turbulent times, who, to quote a colleague, were ‘living for the day’. These
women had hopes and dreams - to educate a child, to buy a land and build a decent house, to save enough
to start their own little business so they don’t have to worry about money, and so on. But today, all they
wanted was to find something to eat for lunch, buy a milk packet for the child who had not had milk in
months, or a couple of thousands of rupees so they could pay that long overdue arrears on their rents.
These women sat depleted, exhausted, and hopeless.
This report tells the story of these women, women who are at the risk of being left behind in the crisis
response. It gives visibility to informal labour from a gendered lens and illustrates how the socio-cultural
norms, capitalist labour control strategies, and regulatory gaps have collectively conditioned the way
women experience informal work in the Sri Lankan apparel industry.