Stitching the Fabric of Reconciliation

In eastern Sri Lanka’s former conflict zone, a USAID-Brandix partnership brings young people from divergent communities together for brighter futures.

By Echelon.

Published on September 27, 2012 with No Comments

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A feast of color greets the eye as one enters the factory floor. The seamstresses favor bright-hued blouses, skirts, dresses, and kurtas. Recent hires wear yellow head scarves while older hands wear blue.

In January, at Brandix Lanka Limited’s new factory in Punani, Sri Lanka, lines of employees were turning out hundreds of ladies’ tank tops in pink, white, and yellow. These days, the facility also produces school uniforms and children’s wear for Tesco, an international retailer. The project—a unique public-private alliance between USAID and Brandix—is one of several partnerships the Agency has forged with local Sri Lankan firms committed to reconciliation in the country’s historically troubled Eastern province. Brandix is Sri Lanka’s leading apparel exporter.

Combining opportunity and reconciliation, the pilot program, known as the Apparel Sector Training Partnership (ASTP), is building brighter futures in an economically lagging region rife with ethnic mistrust resulting from prolonged conflict. While imparting new skills and creating new jobs, the alliance is also fostering new neighbourly attitudes.

Confronting War’s Terrible Toll
For more than two decades, Sri Lanka’s Eastern province witnessed brutal violence between government forces and insurgents seeking a separate Tamil state in the northern and eastern parts of the island. Some Eastern province residents—on both sides—served as combatants while others suffered bloodshed, fear, quarantine, and expulsion as civilians. When insurgents on the Eastern front met with defeat in 2007, residents welcomed a tentative peace, consolidated by the 2009 island-wide military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The laying down of arms also meant that Sri Lanka had to confront the war’s terrible toll on economic life and community relations. USAID responded with integrated initiatives to help repair both.

Launched in 2008 and running until 2013, ASTP trains unskilled workers in former conflict areas, and hires them for Brandix’s new factory in Punani, a town well-located to draw trainees from all three major ethnic communities. In their segregated neighbourhoods, these communities rarely fraternize with each other.
A high proportion of former internally displaced persons can be found among the residents, a majority of whom subsist below the poverty line of one dollar per day. Early ASTP training took place in an abandoned school building, its outside walls pocked with bullet holes. Their education waylaid by decades of conflict, most trainees could neither read nor write.

At the factory, six months of on-the-job training follow an eight-week pre-job workshop including basic life-skills, training on matters like punctuality, grooming, and handling bank accounts, along with team-building exercises. Volleyball games foster skills in overcoming Tamil-Sinhala language barriers. Teams also compete in games requiring recall of personal facts about colleagues such as the names of brothers and sisters and preference for dogs or cats.Some 1,000 young people so far, representing Tamil, Muslim, and Sinhalese groups in rough parity, have learned new skills, and 600 have started working together.
“The opportunity has been especially appealing to young women, who otherwise cannot find jobs in the local market,” says Anna De Silva, USAID’s activity manager on the project. Brandix organizes its Punani work force into multi-ethnic teams and evaluates their performance. In order to perform effectively, teams must manage their language differences. Top teams might win a trip to Colombo for a fashion show, for example, or other special rewards.

Graduates of the program become certified sewing-machine operators, with highly transferable skills and credentials. At Brandix, they earn $85 per month, far more than in the day-labor market that is their main alternative.

USAID’s $200,000 grant supported the pre-employment training for 1,000 workers and purchase of a full-sized bus for their transport. Brandix purchased a second bus and committed nearly $1 million for other costs, including stipends for training on the job, deposited directly into bank accounts to foster saving habits.

Stories from the Factory Lines
Amidst the factory bustle stands 35-year-old Rajeswari,* who lives with her father, younger sister, brother-in-law, and infant nephew. Her goal is to buy a nicer house where all can be more comfortable. A Tamil Hindu, she attended school through grade 5. She has a nice smile but seems sad and hesitant, as if struggling with depression. She wears an army-issue prosthetic left foot.

Drafted by the Tamil insurgency in 1994, Rajeswari lost her foot three years later when shrapnel penetrated her bunker near Vavuniya in the north. She also suffered wounds, still visible, to her head and shoulder. “Soon afterward, I learned by letter from home that my mother had fallen very ill,” she says, “but I could not get permission to visit. Another letter told me she was gone.”

Home at last in 2009, Rajeswari could not find work until ASTP general manager Theo Gunasekera paid her village a visit. Lacking the dexterity of two feet, she could not operate the machines, but Gunasekera thought she could help out in the packing unit. She wins attendance prizes regularly.

“My little team has Sinhalese as well as Tamil girls,” says Rajeswari, “and we get along fine. My leg hurts sometimes because we do so much standing, but the other girls all help, so I can sit down when it gets bad.”

Peering with her remaining eye from behind oval spectacles, Anandhi has a quick smile and an easy laugh, almost mischievous. She grew up in a Tamil Hindu family with a sister and two brothers, reaching eighth grade in school. Insurgents kidnapped her one day when she was on her way to temple and sent her north to Jaffna. Her family had no word of her for six months. She was 14.

“On June 4, 1998, they handed me a firearm I did not even know how to use,” she says. “We were moving through this jungle area when a firefight erupted. Shrapnel and bullets sprayed my left eye and arm.” She shows her purple scars.

Crowded into one of the last insurgent pockets near Killinochchi at the end of the conflict, Anandhi escaped with several companions through heavy fighting and reached home after 11 years . She, too, now works in the Brandix packing unit. She was quiet at first, according to Gunasekera, but seems very outgoing these days.

“I have three Sinhalese friends on my team,” she says. “Amala is always very nice to me and I really like Yasodha—she’s so funny. We have a good time together every day. There’s lots of joking and laughing.”
Classmates together in the original ASTP training session, Kokiladevi, 23, and Anoja, 26, have been friends ever since. Kokiladevi is Tamil Hindu, while Anoja is Sinhalese Buddhist. Anoja is married with two young children but Kokiladevi lives with her parents. Both lived in fear during the conflict.Kokiladevi faced government forces suspicious of possible insurgent presence in her Tamil village. “My whole family would flee to a nearby town when tensions got too high,” she recalls. “One time, my poor cousin took a gunshot wound to his torso.”

Having managed, remarkably, to complete her education through 12th grade, she is now one of the most skilled line workers at the Punani facility. “I have picked up Sinhala on the job here and can manage it pretty well,” she says, “and it’s nice to have Anoja as my supervisor because we’re good friends.”
Calm and dignified in a print sari, Anoja comes across as a natural leader. After gaining experience as a machine operator, she now supervises a line, from first cut to packed items. With 10 years of schooling, she has learned a great deal of Tamil from her colleagues, fluently overseeing a team of 14 Tamils. She, too, tells of childhood troubles. “My father was in the local home guard,” she says. “His hand got shot off early in the conflict.”

With government troops sometimes stationed there, her village endured attacks from Tamil insurgents.
“We were frightened to go out after dark,” she says, “so we stayed indoors—no cooking. We would all run into the forest when the shooting started. Sometimes the whole village would huddle down in the school with its concrete walls.”

These days, she takes most lunches with her mainly Tamil team and expects to keep working indefinitely. “My team meets its targets,” she says. ASTP has been a pioneer story in several respects. Its smooth operation has become a model for other garment firms moving into the region. USAID has used its example in forging nine subsequent Eastern province public-private alliances, some in the garment trade, others in value-added food production.

According to Mission Director Jim Bednar, the Sri Lanka alliances are especially noteworthy for emphasizing domestic firms as partners. “These firms are committed to multi-ethnic employment,” he says, “seeking reconciliation through a new experience: on-the-job cooperation.”

Brandix and USAID have recently begun discussing a further venture, targeting ex-combatants, the internally displaced, and the disabled for jobs in Batticaloa, the lead provincial town. Says De Silva: “Success would represent a novel bridge between economic and humanitarian agendas, while expanding USAID’s efforts to link opportunity with reconciliation in eastern Sri Lanka.”

Names of workers have been changed for privacy reasons | This article was originally published in the May/June 2012 edition of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s FrontLines publication.

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