A Voice for the voiceless

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Chamila Thushari is one of the leading activists from the Katunayake Free Trade Zone (FTZ) and is a part of the Dabindu Collective. Established first as a newspaper in 1984, this workers’ collective trains and raises the awareness of women working in the FTZ, where labour rights violations are rampant. Dabindu supports women in labour rights cases against factory management. The collective works primarily with women garment workers and engages in some international advocacy.This is a woman committed to uplift the lives of one of the most marginalised groups in our country; the women working in our garment factories.

“Once, a woman (worker) wrote a poem called Jeewithaya (life) for Dabindu Newspaper. In it, she says that she hasn’t seen the sun because she leaves for work at dawn, returning home only at night. She further declares that one day she just might fall dead at the sewing machine. The worker was fired upon its publication and Dabindu and other organisations launched a major intervention – the matter was even recorded in Hansard. The employee got her job back along with the accumulated salaries!”she recalls.

From childhood to adulthood, Chamila’s life has been an ongoing struggle to secure these workers’ rights who hardly even know they have any. Her parents were pioneers of the workers’ rights movement in the FTZ (Industrial Park in Ekala) during the late 70s and the 80s. She and her three siblings grew up in a household that doubled as an operation centre for workers and activists. Her father worked in the Ja-Ela Commercial and Mercantile Union at the time and later as a counsel in a Legal Advice Centre.

Raised in a home dedicated to justice

After returning from school, she recalls having to enter the kitchen through the back door and wait outdoors, playing, not to disrupt the meetings or the poster-drawing that were taking place inside the house. Her parents were instrumental in organising significant strikes in the 1980s. As a child, Chamila and her siblings witnessed the organising effort of at least three major strikes against garment factories including Polytex and Union Carbide.

It was not an easy childhood. It was a chaotic time in the country, and she remembers how at one point they had to bury all the books on Left politics in their backyard. “I can still feel the fear of getting shot in the back when going on a motorcycle,” she says with a laugh as if it’s utterly acceptable trauma.

In the beginning, Chamila’s mother was just a housewife who cooked for the crowds gathered at their home for meetings and was inevitably swept into frontline activism with time. She co-founded Women’s Centre and later became the founder of Dabindu (meaning beads of sweat) newspaper in 1984, which has been in publication ever since, reporting issues and injustices faced by workers, raising awareness, and educating them on their rights and matters of wellbeing. Chamila joined Dabindu in 1994 after her secondary education and worked alongside her mother, eventually taking over the publication and the organisation, and has been running a commendable operation. Dabindu newspaper, now available online, continues to raise the issues of garment workers to make sure these young women’s lives are a little less exploited and a little less bleak every day.

Running for office

Apart from the publication, the Dabindu Collective intervenes in various issues that affect the workers. This includes a living wage, boarding house conditions, facilitating discussions with stakeholders, conducting training and awareness programmes for the workers about labour rights, female empowerment, domestic violence, reproductive health, leadership, and more. They have also conducted many studies to portray the situation in the FTZ accurately. Some of their other publications are Living for the Day (2017) and Makena Mathaka (2008). Chamila is the powerhouse behind all this immense work, and she has lived up to her parent’s legacy, elevating Dabindu to higher ground. Chamila’s work is recognised both locally and internationally, and she was an NPP (National People’s Power) National list candidate for the Parliamentary General Election 2020.

As a girl, Chamila had always been someone who challenged male authority. Dancing was her passion, and though she was appointed as a dancing teacher, circumstances did not allow her to pursue it as a career. However, she has no regrets and speaks with humble pride that she has contributed to society with her chosen path.

A shoulder to lean on

Today, she is regarded highly among FTZ workers as well as other organisations and activists, and she has won the respect of factory management and other stakeholders, securing herself a key position to influence the decisions that shape the lives of thousands of young women in Sri Lanka. She remains committed to the FTZ community making herself approachable to any worker at any time; a listening ear, a compassionate ally, and a fighter who will stand for their rights no matter what. Chamila also works with the women in the North, conducting awareness and training programmes on matters from labour rights to reproductive rights.

In 2016, Chamila gave leadership to the ‘Pay Our Workers’ campaign in Vavuniya demanding that the brand H&M pay a living wage to their employees. The campaign gained international attention with gestures of solidarity and support. As someone whose childhood was spent looking up to a whole community of fearless and passionate activists including her own parents, Chamila stands steady on her ground never hesitating to speak up against injustice and also to name the perpetrators. This precisely is the kind of mettle reflected through the Dabindu newspaper with its resoluteness in never shying away from naming the brands, the factories, and incidents that adversely affect the wellbeing of the workers.

When the Minuwangoda COVID Cluster came into play, and thousands of garment workers were infected, Chamila openly voiced her concerns about how the Government officials treated the workers. The Dabindu Collective organised a press conference to reveal how workers were forced out from their boarding houses like criminals with only 15 minutes’ notice to pack. Not stopping there, Chamila led the Dabindu Collective to launch a massive relief effort providing food and essentials to workers in quarantine.

The work Chamila has done, the change that she has been able to make, the struggles that she has won over so many years have mostly stayed out of the public eye. Her commitment to ensure the safety, well-being and protection of the rights of young girls who lack opportunity and voice shows her courage, tenacity, and, more than anything else, her compassion and empathy that makes her a true leader and an activist of our time.

“This is a fight for fairness and equality. Yet it remains a challenge as the fight itself lacks female representation at the places where decisions are made,” says Chamila.

(Courtesy Everystory Sri Lanka)

By Shyama Basnayake