The Collective Working Body: Rethinking Apparel Workers' Health and Well-being during the COVID-19 Pandemic in Sri Lanka
This article contributes to debates on global apparel workers’ health and well-being through an examination of how Sri Lankan workers were affected and treated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Based on qualitative interviews in and around the Katunayake Export Processing Zone, the article takes the Sri Lankan apparel industry as a case study. It reconceptualises the “precarious working body” as a “collective body” in order to demonstrate how workers’ health was a matter of collective precariousness. Workers’ health was not only dependent on that of others around them inside densely populated factories, but was also shaped by systemic material and discursive practices that affected workers collectively. These material practices included labour control and incentive structures that prevented workers from seeking medical attention and taking leave when needed, which in turn led to the spread of the virus across factories. The discursive practices comprise the social stigma and devaluation of women apparel workers that facilitated the blaming of workers for spreading the virus and enabled their inhumane treatment during the pandemic response. We argue that conceiving of apparel workers as a “collective body” enables a recognition of the systemic forces that create ill health at work and that expose certain (but not all) working bodies to the risks of infection.
KEYWORDS: labour regimes; social stigma; occupational health; apparel industry; COVID-19
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