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INTERVIEW: Swasthika Arulingam

14 November, 2022IndustriALL's Kalyani Badola interviews Swasthika Arulingamrecently elected president of the Commercial and Industrial Workers Union (CIWU)


From Global Worker No 2 November 2022


Country: Sri Lanka

Union: Commercial and Industrial Workers Union (CIWU)

Text: Kalyani Badola

How did you become a trade unionist?

“I finished my law degree in 2012, after which I joined the Legal Aid Commission of Sri Lanka (LAC) as a lawyer. LAC provides legal aid services to marginalized sections of society who cannot afford to pay for legal counsel. 

“When I joined LAC, the organization was just starting a project to set up centres in Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka to provide legal aid services to war-affected communities in the region. Since I speak Tamil and a significant portion of the population in the area is Tamil, I was asked to oversee the project. During this period, I spent a lot of time with the working class of the country, trying to understand their issues and providing support wherever it was possible. Since I was based out of Colombo, I was also part of the legal aid panel there. This gave me an opportunity to interact with workers from Free Trade Zones (FTZ) and familiarize myself with the situation of industrial workers in the country. We were doing a lot of pro-bono cases of workers’ rights violations in FTZ areas. This is when I encountered organizers from the Commercial and Industrial Workers Union (CIWU). My political ideology and the work that CIWU was doing intersected, and I decided to join the union in 2019. Since then, I have been working as an organizer with CIWU.”

Why is it important for unions to have young women leaders?

“In 2021 I was approached to be on the union’s executive committee. They believed the union and workers could benefit immensely from a young woman in the leadership position. Being a feminist, I couldn’t agree with them more. I decided to participate in the election and was elected deputy general secretary. Unfortunately, the union president, Linus Jayatilake, passed away earlier this year. After his demise, the executive committee approached me to take the post. And in July this year, I took on the role of the president of CIWU.

“In Sri Lanka, like everywhere in South Asia, a majority of trade union leadership is male-dominated. This greatly affects the types of worker's issues that unions take up. We see that in industries like garment, which has a disproportionately high number of unskilled and fluctuating women workers, having a male leadership makes it extremely difficult to raise issues like night work, harassment on the shop floor including sexual harassment, gender pay gap, transport facility, and childcare, as factory issues. These are frequently not regarded as worker issues, but rather as issues affecting women and are most of the time not made a priority. 

“Even when they are raised, the approach of a male leadership is very different. For example, sexual harassment is treated as a one-off incident which it is not; it is deeply embedded in the production process. For night work, male unionists usually say that women need to go home early as they need to take care of the household and children. So, we see patriarchy playing out even within unions and in the formulation of workers’ problems. 

“In such a scenario a woman leader or a woman organizer can make a huge difference. Women-led unions have demonstrated a strong feeling of camaraderie and a collective spirit. In contrast to male-led unions, where leaders assume the role of God and other members feel like they are pleading for help, in women-led unions, everyone feels like they are a part of the process. The union culture changes when women are in leadership positions. It is still good to have a woman who sounds like them even though I did not come to this position from the shop floor. It gives them hope that one day they will be able to lead.”

What challenges do young women face within union spaces?

“As I mentioned earlier, patriarchy plays out even within unions. Women unionists are constantly subjected to sexist remarks, harassment, and sub-delegation of tasks. Low-paid administrative tasks are usually assigned to women, and the face of the leadership is always a man.” 

How have unions, including CIWU, responded to you being elected president?

“CIWU has been very supportive. I am not treated any differently from our other senior leaders. They see it as an opportunity to articulate new positions, formulate new campaigns, and bring in more young people. But of course, it will take time to get used to a woman leader in the decision-making body. Our society does not view assertiveness as a quality that women should possess. They are ‘supposed’ to be subservient. The National Labour Advisory Council (NLAC) of Sri Lanka, which IndustriALL affiliates are also part of, was formed in 1995 but has just welcomed its first female trade unionist. 

“But then it’s not just about one woman. We need women at all levels. In our executive committee, there are three women out of 15 members. That figure must rise. Additionally, we must make sure that we do more than simply participate in the decision-making process in name alone.”

What is the situation for workers in Sri Lanka now?

“The current economic crisis is the making of the ruling class. We lacked an economic strategy when liberal economic policies were introduced in 1977. The ruling class wanted to appease individual employers and be in their good books. They did not think of methods to restructure the whole economy. There hasn’t been any industrialized growth in the country. There are no decent jobs. And the situation continued to get worse. And now with Covid and the current economic crisis, the economy has hit the rock bottom. 

“Exporters are keeping the funds outside the country. Employers are only worried about their interests and the political class is not holding them accountable. The current economic structure perpetuates the victimization of workers through diluting labour laws, eliminating social protection, paying starvation wages, and busting unions. Workers are being exploited by businesses, but there is no one to speak up to management about their exploitative practices. Where there are collective bargaining agreements, management is pressuring unions to settle for less-than-ideal agreements or to forgo having any at all. Even within NLAC which is a tripartite body, the position of unions is weaker as there is a strong presence of anti-union government officials and employers.

“Wages have stagnated. Overtime, attendance bonus, transport fares, or any other incentives, are not paid and the cost of living has shot up. Food inflation hit 94 per cent last month. We are paying thrice as much compared to what we used to pay earlier for utilities. Public transport and fuel have become expensive. Taxes, both direct and indirect, have risen. There is a huge burden on workers. it has become impossible to live. They are skipping meals because they can’t afford to pay for food items anymore. Nutrition has been severely affected. Children are not going to school. So, the overall situation is very pitiable.”

What are unions doing in the face of the crisis?

“We have been running a community kitchen programme for union members in FTZ by pooling resources, easing the economic pressure on individual workers and their families. We have written to the government several times to engage with trade unions and to convene a meeting of NLAC so that issues pertaining to workers’ rights can be discussed in the tripartite forum. 

“We have demanded that the minimum wage be raised from LKR16,000 (US$44) to LKR26,000 (US$71). We are also demanding a monthly economic relief allowance of LKR10,000 (US$27) for all workers. We wrote a letter to the Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF) requesting brands who source from Sri Lanka, to continue to place their orders in Sri Lankan factories so that economy doesn’t collapse further and workers can retain their jobs.”