Apparel workers’ image helps boost national economy | Sunday Observer

Apparel workers’ image helps boost national economy

8 November, 2020

Image is an important factor for every profession, not only to perform its duties well, but also to gain self-satisfaction. The best example is that how the Government worked to build the image of soldiers to accomplish 30 years’ battle against terrorism.

There are other successful example of such empowerment, such as “Rata Viruwa” and “Suwa Viruwa”. But still there is no concerted effort to empower apparel workers by building their image in society.

Positive image


Apparel workers have been contributing to the economy since the establishment of the open economic policy in 1977. Sri Lanka became a world class apparel manufacturer by supplying global super brands for over three decades. The industry provides direct employment to over 300,000 and indirect employment to 600,000. There are around 300 – 350 apparel manufacturers in the country.

The contribution of the apparel industry can be recognised as a key indicator in the economy. According to the Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF), Sri Lanka earned a record of US $ 5.3 billion from its apparel exports in 2019. The apparel and textile industry contributes 6 percent to Sri Lanka’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), while accounting for 40 percent of the country’s total exports. (Source: Xinhua News Blog, 22-01-2020).

Research has shown that apparel workers lack a positive image in the Sri Lankan society. Especially, female workers in the apparel sector are stigmatised and referred to as “Juki girls” or “Garment girls” which are derogatory terms for machine operators. “Stigma” is a Greek word that in its origins referred to a type of marking or tattoo that was cut or burned into the skin of criminals, slaves, or traitors in order to visibly identity them as blemished or morally polluted person. These persons were to be avoided particularly in public places. This was the fundamental incident of stigmatised people.

Social stigmatisation affects people’s wellbeing. Erving Goffman (1963) said, “Social stigma is defined by scientists as the disapproval of, or discontent with, a person on the ground of characteristics that distinguish them from other members of society”. According to the definition, stigmatisation is related to negative characteristics as well as corrupt and anti-social people. But, the pathetic situation is that, apparel workers are stigmatised in various ways without reasonable factors, although they are highly contributing to the economy.

The stigmatisation of apparel workers is an irrational and unethical aspect of society. Negative social perception and stigmatisation lead apparel workers to maintain a negative self-perception. Therefore, apparel workers tend to think that they are unimportant and unaccepted group when comparing to other occupations in society.

This poor social recognition and the negative reputation cause apparel workers’ job retention as well as the reluctance of the young generation to join the industry. Retention of workers is one of the major challenges in the apparel industry in Sri Lanka.

The nature of social stigma of apparel workers mainly involves the perceptions of patriarchal society to consider them as sex objects, an uneducated group and as employees who work for low wages under minimum facilities.

Many studies show that people treat apparel female workers as sex objects and there have been many reported sexual harassments. Generally, apparel workers are paid a good salary. Additionally, they are provided main meals, transport, healthcare and other facilities. But the majority of the society has recognised them as a weak group and considers them as a group which cannot fulfill even their primary needs. Society has also acknowledged them as uneducated because of the minimum educational qualifications required for recruiting these workers.

There is a myth as to some unethical and anti-social behaviours of apparel workers which society tends to generalise for all the members of the whole group, such as prostitution and drug dealing for easy earning around trade zones. According to the common idea, society has a traditional attitude on apparel workers. Society’s negative social perception and stigmatization create a negative self-perception among apparel workers.

Therefore, they feel a low self-esteem for themselves when dealing with society. Right to live with dignity is inherent to anyone at birth.

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. The opening statement of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), asserts the freedom of human life and equal treatment in dignity and rights. Everyone has a right as well as a desire to live with dignity. Hence, the discrimination of any nature cannot be accepted due to any working class distinctions.

The importance of social image

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Human beings have simple and complex needs in their lives. Failure to fulfill the needs may eventually lead to a mental dissatisfaction. Social Psychologist, Abraham Maslow (1908 – 1970) presented a theory of hierarchy of needs. According to him, the ground level need is physiological, such as food, clothes and houses. The next of this hierarchy is safety needs, which imply safety of both life and property. Once someone is satisfied with safety needs, they are eventually looking for “love and belonging”. That means they are looking to be a part of society and accepted by others around them while maintaining a respectful companionship. They need stable relationships to be interdepend in society.

Social stigmatisation of apparel workers influences the “love and respect” of this hierarchy of needs. By referring to this model, apparel worker seems to be fulfilling their ground level needs. Researchers show that social stigmatisation eventually leads to job retention. Even though they are fulfilling basic needs by working in the apparel sector, they are not satisfied with the need for “love and belonging”.

The next of the hierarchy is the esteem need which is the feeling of accomplishment. That means people want to be proud of themselves, recognised and admired within their social groups as individuals who accomplish physiological, safety and belonging needs.

At this level, people tend to lead community because they need to empower others to accomplish their needs. The best example is retired professionals holding positions of community based organisations, such as religious associations, welfare committees and rural development associations, because they need the satisfaction of accomplishment. They cannot fulfill the esteem needs without satisfying love and belonging, according to the hierarchy. The top of the hierarchy of needs is self-actualisation.

This is an advanced need related to spirituality. At this level, people are close to religion, because they have a better understanding of themselves. Maslow has divided these needs in to three categories. Physiological and safety needs are included in the category of basic needs. Belonging, love and esteem needs are included in the category of Psychological needs and self-actualisation is aligned with self-fulfillment needs.

According to this hierarchy of needs, love and belonging are related to the social acceptance and image of a person. In that sense, apparel workers may have a huge dissatisfaction due to the stigmatisation of them in various ways. This condition affects job retention and leads to a negative self-perception.

Eliminating social stigma

Apparel workers’ contribution to the country’s economy must be recognised by the authorities. Their retention is one of the significant challenges for achieving industrial goals and national economic indicators. The Covid-19 pandemic has also influenced their social image.

Stigmatisation is an issue for all professionals in society. Social stigma can have an impact on civil status, recognition and social image. We should not alienate apparel workers from society. Taking action to eradicate social stigma of apparel workers is necessary. Although their contribution is remarkable, their service is invisible to society.

Their great service is only appreciated and recognised in economic data of the country. The primary human nature is that people respect to the occupations that are timely or situational. The best examples of this nature are respect to health service workers during the Covid-19 pandemic and respect to military services during the battle against terrorism. Now it is time to take action to eradicate the stigmatisation of apparel workers and build a positive image for their invaluable service.