Sri Lanka is a small island nation in the Indian sub-continent. The country's economy heavily relies on apparel exports. Sri Lanka has done well in the apparel sector even though it has to mostly rely on imported input including fabrics, machinery and other raw material. Good quality, cheap and disciplined workforce is the only significant resource available within the country. Then how the nation managed to do well?
To begin with, the government worked with the industry to ensure decent working conditions in garment factories. The industry itself paid early attention to improve productivity to off-set higher input costs resulting from the need to import almost everything to sew a garment. Sri Lanka has the highest productivity levels among Asian garment producing nations due to heavy investments in training over the years.
Early on, Sri Lankan factory owners realized that decent and comfortable working conditions contribute to increase in worker productivity. So, it's not uncommon to find centrally air-conditioned production floors in garment factories, something unheard of in other countries where only the owners or top managers have the privilege to sit in an airconditioned office.
Sri Lanka was also the first country where the garment industry openly embraced sustainability. So, the world's first eco-factory came up in Sri Lanka last year with support from Marks & Spencer. The success has inspired other factory owners to set-up green-factories and many are in the pipe-line.
In the same spirit, three years ago, Sri Lankan apparel industry came up with a great-looking idea to differentiate itself from other garment producing nations. It launched a path breaking scheme: Garments Without Guilt. The idea was to reassure retailers and consumers in the western markets that clothing in Sri Lanka was made in factories with decent working conditions and not in sweatshops. The local apparel industry wanted to position the country as a destination for ethical production; free from child labour and other abuses so common in several other garment producing countries.
A brilliant idea. Usually retailers drive the labour compliance programme through a social responsibility code of conduct and repetitive factory audits and monitoring. They often complain that the suppliers are slow to take the ownership. But Sri Lankan manufactures decided to change that and take the lead.
Over 130 factories -about 90% of all factories in the nation - agreed to participate in Garments Without Guilt scheme. They submitted themselves to an independent audit, to be conducted by SGS, of their factories for working conditions.
Then the industry approached multinational brands with a request to allow the participating factories to attach a Garments Without Guilt hand tag on the garments. Guess what? All retailers have turned down the request though they refuse to confess it publicly. Privately, they say that the scheme is problematic. If they allow such hand tag for garments from Sri Lanka, then what will consumers think of garments produced in other countries such as China but stocked in the same store? Since factory owners in other countries cannot guarantee guilt free garments, Sri Lanka cannot be allowed to claim guilt free products, is their logic. Ill conceived? Well, I will be happy to hear what you think.