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Abstract

This article explores how the COVID-19 pandemic and the lock down had increased global assembly line workers’ vulnerability to several forms of modern slavery. It focuses on two groups of women workers associated with global production in Sri Lanka. First, the daily-hired workers in the Katunayake and Biyagama Free Trade Zones (FTZ) and second the former global factory workers now settled in villages and operating as home subcontractors.

The COVID-19 forced lockdown caused factory shutdowns and curtailed production, leaving FTZ workers with no work and income. The global lockdown has clearly affected both groups, despite their differing work and life cycle positioning. Yet their shared experience of losing hard won decision-making powers along with their income make it crucial to investigate their lockdown experiences together. In doing so, this paper argues that the pandemic and the lock down had increased marginalized women’s vulnerability to several forms of modern slavery, and that the state outsourcing it’s responsibility in providing livelihood security and labor rights to corporate sector has resulted in certain invisibilities that aid such vulnerability. The paper calls for developing contingency livelihood safety mechanisms and contends that any such plans must take into account gendered insecurities given that women’s income is closely intertwined with decision making abilities, social status and physical safety.

Note on the Author

Sandya Hewamanne is professor of Anthropology, Department of Sociology, University of Essex. She is the author of Stitching Identities in a Free Trade Zone: Gender and Politics in Sri Lanka, University of Pennsylvania Press (2008) Sri Lanka’s Global Factory Workers: (Un)Disciplined Desires and Sexual Struggles in a Post-Colonial Society, Routledge (2016) and Re-stitching Identities in Rural Sri Lanka: Neoliberalism, Gender and Politics of Contentment, University of Pennsylvania Press (2020). She has published numerous journal articles and book chapters on labor and human rights, gender, sexuality and economic anthropology. She is also the Convener of Essex South Asia Research Network (ESARN) and the Founder, Director of IMPACT-Global Work, a non-profit which connects academics and activists to initiate beneficial policies for global workers in third world countries.

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