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

Author Biographies

Shyamain Wickramasingha, Copenhagen Business School

Shyamain Wickramasingha is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Copenhagen Business School. She carries out comparative research on the South Asian apparel industry, with a focus on Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Her work is mainly centred on the political economy of global production networks and labour regimes. Shyamain has published her work in Economic Geography and has contributed to the edited volume Labour Regimes and Global Production (Agenda Publishing, Newcastle, 2022). [Email:; ORCiD: 0000-0001-8607-8973]

Geert De Neve, University of Sussex

Geert De Neve is Professor of Social Anthropology and South Asian Studies at the University of Susses, UK. He has carried out extensive research on textile and garment industries in South Asia, with a focus on the livelihoods of garment workers in Tamil Nadu, India. He has published widely on the topic, including the co-edited volumes Unmaking the Global Sweatshop: Health and Safety of the World's Garment Workers (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017) and Hidden Hands in the Market: Ethnographies of Fair Trade, Ethical Consumption and Corporate Social Responsibility (Emerald, Research in Economic Anthropology, Volume 28, 2008). [Email: ORCiD: 0000-0001-8874-4749]