Ashila Mapalagama

This description of Ashila Mapalagama's work was prepared when Ashila Mapalagama was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2012.


Through the “Stand Up” movement, Ashila Mapalagama is pioneering a fresh approach to an old problem; using a mutual assistance program that is an employee-based and self-financed social security system to create a collective identity and spur self-organization among predominately female Free Trade Zone (FTZ) workers and laborers who are affected by outsourcing in Sri Lanka.

The New Idea

Ashila, a former FTZ factory worker herself, has established the “Stand-Up” labor movement as an alternative to the traditional top-down and male-dominated trade union movements that have failed to organize the vast majority of FTZ women workers. Her approach moves beyond basic protest against labor violations and instead focuses on how workers can collectively enhance their own social security needs and become more resilient by pooling their own resources. The self-sustaining social security system called “Shahana,” functions as an insurance system and compensates injured and unfairly treated workers while also allowing workers to borrow loans for emergency situations and aids them in pursuing legal action. This insurance system is funded through workers’ subscription and interest earned from the emergency loans. The contributors or ‘members’ become connected through this common objective and begin to see themselves as powerful actors to change the often dire working conditions they face. Breaking all barriers, Ashila has built a women-led movement around a vital social security issue affecting the laborers. Ashila is also working to expand this social security network to provide legal aid and protection to members who come forward to challenge unfair labor treatment. Ashila has taken this approach to support an emerging group of unorganized workers who are exploited by sub-contractors.

The Problem

An increasingly globalized manufacturing industry has embraced outsourcing as a strategy for maintaining competitiveness in a rapidly growing and ever-changing market. In the last two years, the number of outsourcing agencies has rapidly increased in Sri Lanka. They have mushroomed to fulfill investors’ demands for labor. However, these companies and investors’ understanding and compliance of labor laws and legal procedures have not kept pace with this growth. The Sri Lankan government has been reluctant to focus on worker's concerns and instead have prioritized looking after the interests of investors, who provide valuable foreign currency into Sri Lanka's troubled economy.

The garment industry in Sri Lanka employs and estimated 250,000 workers and brings in about 4 billion USD making it the second largest source of foreign investment. Eighty-two percent of these workers are women and many of these women are migrants from rural areas who find it difficult to demand a living wage without any support system in an unfamiliar environment. The weak labor markets, where unemployment and marginal, intermittent informal sector jobs are the norm for these unskilled workers, make the FTZs virtually the only source of regular work available to young rural women. FTZ factories mostly produce garments but other items such as gloves, toys and electrical parts are also being manufactured. There are about 14 FTZs that accommodate over 500 factories in Sri Lanka. Workers in the FTZs, particularly women, face a set of sub-standard working conditions including, sexual harassment, under-payment of wages, poor safety, excessive hours of work, harsh discipline, lack of career advancement, suppression of trade union rights, sub-standard accommodation arrangements and social stigmatization. Further, the demographic of these workers -between the ages of 18 – 35 years, female, living alone (in rented and unfamiliar places) and highly unorganized- makes them more susceptible to accept these precarious conditions for lack of alternatives.

The traditional structures, like trade unions and women’s organizations, that workers use to uphold their rights and seek redress for violations, have failed to reach out to FTZ workers. The many restrictions imposed on organizing in the FTZ and local legislations have made this situation even worse. However, growing consciousness among FTZ workers for the need for greater worker protection and social security reforms began in 2011 triggered by a failed pension bill that would have benefited factory owners at the expense of workers.

At the same time, another growing trend is generating an even more vulnerable group. The same outsourcing firms functioning in the FTZs are increasingly outsourcing more menial and informal tasks (i.e. cleaning and food services) to employment companies which have even lower levels of regulation. They have low pay with no job stability or benefits, and as a result, face increased risk and danger from work-related accidents. For example, the salaries of these workers depend on the service agent, and their daily work hours range from 10 to 14 hours while only being paid a meager salary of about Rs. 250.00 ($2) to Rs. 450.00 ($4) per day. In most situations, the employer who obtains their services pays the agent about Rs. 500.00 ($ 4.25) to Rs. 850.00 ($8) per worker, and thus the revenue of the manpower agency can be two or more times the wages the worker receives. The workers are paid salaries only for days they work.

The Strategy

After a decade of working in garment factories mobilizing workers to understand their rights, Ashila started the Stand Up movement in 2008. From an initial 7 supporters, Ashila grew the movement to encompass 2000 subscribed members involved in educational programs and awareness about basic labor rights among women working in the FTZ factories.

Between 2009-2010, the economic crisis coupled with Sri Lanka’s poor human rights record led the European Union and the United States to withdraw the important GSP+ tariff relief in those countries’ markets where the 90% of Sri Lankan made apparel is sold. While many leading economists and industrialists protested the GSP+ withdrawal for negatively impacting the Sri Lankan export income and revenue of the garment industry, Ashila used her Stand Up movement to highlight the particular impact on women and the need to link factory owner benefits with workers benefits. She published a study entitled “Mansandi (Crossroads),” with 72 case studies that effectively showcased the impact of the withdrawal of the GSP+ facility on the lives of women workers and their working conditions. This was used by many labor rights activists to lobby the US and EU governments as well as the United Nations (through the Universal Period Review process) to have better benefits for workers, especially women, when the USA revisited its GSP+ policy on Sri Lanka and re-granted it in 2011. As a result, the USA and Sri Lanka bilateral agreement underlines that garment factories must share the tariff relief benefit they enjoy through GSP+ with the workers as a condition of their contracts. If factory owners violate any labor rules set forth by the agreement, their benefits are withheld. Ashila did not stop there, she went on to negotiate with the factory owners about sharing their GSP+ benefits with workers and brought in notable media attention if employers are hijacking GSP+ benefits. She has been lobbying international labor rights organizations and the UN to help establish a monitoring system to ensure that the GSP+ benefit is shared with workers.

Parallel to this work, Ashila realized that in addition for ensuring fair labor practices and benefits to the predominantly female works in the FTZs, she realized that the Stand Up network could do more than advocate and share information. It could also be a vehicle for pooling workers’ resources to support one another to increase their collective resilience. In the crisis-induced scaling back of factory work, Ashila invited Stand Up members to contribute to a new self-sustaining fund that within 6 months had initiated 18 emergency loans and medical advances within 8 hours of notice by members. Called Shahana, this fund today it encompasses 324 members and has a much larger portion of contributions for emergency loans and other services. This money is collected through an initial membership fee of Rs. 1000 ($10), along with a monthly subscription of Rs. 50 and 5% interest on the loans. Emergency loans can provide up to Rs. 25,000 ($250) and compensation in the event of an accident can vary depending on the physical harm suffered by the worker and the recovery period. To date, at least 98 workers have directly benefited from Shahana and more recently Ashila has also introduced a free legal assistance program for members through this system. Shahana is managed by members on a voluntary basis, moving away from traditional labor union leader’s practices that are often donor driven. Ashila’s focus is creating a committed volunteer work force to drive Shahana to realization.

More recently, Ashila has become more involved in the struggle for workers affected by a second layer of outsourcing in the country: employment agencies supplying foreign companies with menial service workers, whose rights are not covered under any Sri Lankan labor laws. She intends to organize this group through her Shahana system as well as raise awareness about their rights through media and publicity campaigns focusing on economic conditions (especially wage exploitation by employment agencies). Ashila is also working on the implementation of a ‘labor charter’ (proposed in 1995 by the current President when he was the labor minister) which is one avenue through which the Government could ensure the rights of informal sector workers. Currently, she is engaged in designing a code of conduct and various Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) campaigns for international buyers and brands that have buying contracts with a majority of these factories in which these workers are exploited. She wants to launch consumer campaigns in European countries and USA (both of which are large consumers of Sri Lankan apparel) to shine light on and influence consumer perceptions towards the brands that violate labor rights.

The Person

Ashila’s father was a trade unionist who disappeared during the uprising in the south in 1990. Devastated, and with much difficulty, Ashila still managed to complete her higher studies in 1998 and gained admission to college. However, she was responsible for looking after her mother and younger siblings, so she decided to go to Jordan as a factory worker in 1999 on a one-year contract. Upon her return she joined a well reputed garment factory as a quality controller.

Her social mobilization work started in 2001 when she was elected to a joint council of workers and employers and out of 10 worker representatives in this council, Ashila was the only woman-- and a vocal one too. Trouble began when Ashila launched a campaign to advocate for salary revisions for her co-workers. As a response to her campaign, she was constantly rotated from one section to another and eventually to different factories in different locations so that she couldn’t interact with workers on a long term basis. To Ashila, however, it was an opportunity to study labor conditions in different factories and across sections of workers. By 2002, the management’s tactics made her life miserable by giving her a new task virtually every day, forcing Ashila to leave her job.

In the next 3 years, Ashila spent time working in 4 different factories but at regular intervals each factory manager fired her because she continued to mobilize the workers and write provocative articles highlighting the rights violations committed. In 2006, she began working jointly with the citizen sector organization called Right to Life that addresses worker rights. Ashila was put in charge of mobilizing workers in FTZ factories and to form a coalition among the NGOs to addressing worker grievances collectively. As a result of her work, an Apparel Industry Labor Movement (ALaRM) was formed and Ashila worked hard in mobilizing workers for many of ALaRM’s tribunals, especially to address the minimum wage and social security violations. Ashila’s key involvement with ALaRM has paved the way in bringing different actors in the apparel industry to come together to influence the International Labor Organization (ILO) to convene a high powered MFA Task Force (Multi Fiber Agreement, a quota system for the export of textile products).

According to Ashila, her experience, though highly undesirable in the garment industry, has made her the person she is today. By associating and working very closely with women workers over the years she has gained an immense understanding about the most complex and sensitive areas in women’s lives, including how the majority of women who are faced with diverse issues in their personal lives, enter into employment as a way of freeing themselves to some extent, and thereafter only get trapped into an exploitative labor market that inevitably makes them more vulnerable. Her understanding and empathy to this pattern, obtained by her own experience in the working class, is the most valuable vigor in her movement building work.