The apex body of the apparel industry, the Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF), pledged absolute support to the ILO’s Better Work initiative demonstrating the industry’s deep commitment to prioritising people and their well-being.

The ILO recently launched Better Work (BW) with the objective of strengthening the industry’s resilience using Better Work’s extensive experience, tools and partnerships to exemplify a human-centred recovery and growth. Recognising that Sri Lanka’s apparel sector has a relatively high bar, the BW programme roll out is not the same for other countries but allows them to build on the work already done in this area.

One of the major industry’s in focus under BW is apparel, which also accounts for Sri Lanka’s largest exports, employing nearly one million both directly and indirectly across 350 manufacturing plants island wide. Better Work has incorporated interventions on occupational safety and health, gender diversity and inclusion (including leadership skills training and career development for women workers), empowering Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) with leadership and financial literacy training along with an SME factory improvement toolkit.

The apparel industry’s internationally acclaimed trust and reputation is anchored on the uniqueness of prioritising ethical labour practices and JAAF strongly believes that Better Work gives an opportunity to partner with local and international stakeholders to further strengthen the commitment of ensuring decent work environments built on gender equality, safety, health, inclusion and holistic empowerment.

Addressing an audience at the formal launch of the event, Minister of Labour and Foreign Employment, Manusha Nanayakkara, extended government support to the initiative stating: “The program is a significant step in promoting better OSH practices and standards so that the already high standards of the apparel sector could be further elevated. This will in return send a strong message to the key stakeholders of the industry ecosystem about our commitment to the apparel industry.”

With the perils of the pandemic and the subsequent economic crisis, Sri Lanka’s apparel industry has implemented an expansive range of initiatives to ensure that the welfare of workers and their families are a top priority. These include providing additional meals for employees to take home in order to feed their families, distribution of dry rations, provision of schoolbooks for children, free medical facilities and transport and customised food packages for expectant women. These initiatives have been extended to those in the SME sector as well.

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The industry has always encouraged plans to implement welfare measures to best suit the requirements of their workers since as early as June 2022, according to JAAF. Approximately 80% of apparel manufacturers made cost-of-living adjustments to salaries over and above their annual increments. In some instances, these represent a 25% increase from 2021.