This dissertation is about the reconfiguration of the export garment industry from the perspective of its nearly 300,000 workers in Sri Lanka. Since 1977, Sri Lanka’s economy has liberalized, which involves the ongoing privatization of State Owned Enterprises (SOEs), cuts to universal welfare, and an emphasis on attracting foreign investment. The state has created thirteen Export Processing Zone (EPZs), mostly along the southwestern coast, to provide opportunities for investors, including tax concessions. Suppliers, especially Sri Lankan-owned Multinational Corporations (MNCs), have consolidated into enterprises worth hundreds of millions of dollars that benefit from tax and trade policy. In addition, Sri Lanka’s continued integration into the global market has led to further cuts to public services, including declining government revenue as a proportion of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Because other small Southern countries attempting to industrialize face similar challenges, I group these changes under the rubric of export capitalism.
To analyze the impact of export capitalism, I produce an ethnographic account of Sri Lankan export garment workers’ lives. I completed ethnographic research among workers, managers, unionists, residents living near EPZs, government officials, and others, over a 26-month period, from July 2014 to December 2016. I track people’s routines, movements, and critiques across a range of sites, including rural villages, factories inside and outside EPZs, boarding houses near the Katunayake EPZ, located north of the capital Colombo, and union offices. I argue that export garment workers embody the tension between their twin identities as workers—narrowly-defined economic agents receiving a wage—and members of the working class—a broad political constituency. Export garment workers experience wage repression and the intensification of work in vertically-integrated enterprises, including those owned by Sri Lankan MNCs. They also critique the retreat of public services, demanding more from the Sri Lankan welfare state.
Interpreting workers’ experiences, I concentrate on the unrealized demands implied by the appropriation of the value that they produce. These demands are not realized either in their wages or the public services that they receive. I argue that workers attempt to manage constraints by relying on each other. Tensions within community, in places such as the boarding houses and villages in which many workers live, in turn reproduce the contradictions of export capitalism. I conclude my dissertation by looking at the ways in which unionists on the ground attempt to recruit workers. The question—as implied by a rapidly expanding literature on the practice of unionism in the global South—is how Sri Lanka’s labor movement is being reshaped by a labor force, often gendered as female, that works in export industries such as garments. Accordingly, my dissertation approaches theoretical debate about the representation of the working class from the ethnographic perspective of the challenges faced by Sri Lanka’s export garment workers.