Evaluating the Impact of COVID-19 on Female Apparel Workers in Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, the apparel sector employed around 470,000 workers, with females comprising 70% of the workforce. Photo credit: ADB.

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Future-proof workers against the impact of future pandemics by strengthening community- and evidence-based initiatives.


The World Health Organization (WHO) has expressed concerns about the global community’s readiness for pathogen X, a highly contagious virus that could emerge in the future. Scientists predict a higher likelihood of its origin in tropical regions, placing Sri Lanka at considerable risk.

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic severely impacted the livelihoods of millions of workers across Sri Lanka. The manufacturing sector, where workers are in very close proximity to one another, faced more challenging conditions than other sectors such as agriculture. Given the significance of the apparel industry and its role as a major source of employment, this article evaluates the pandemic’s impact on female apparel workers in Sri Lanka. It also provides guidance on shaping future policies, including strengthening community-centered and evidence-based initiatives, leveraging centralized data, and enhancing employment benefits, to mitigate the impact of similar events.


At the onset of COVID-19, estimates derived from a Labor Force Survey in 2020 suggest that the apparel sector in Sri Lanka employed around 470,000 workers, with 70% of them being female and primarily holding low-skilled positions, such as machine operators, line helpers, and cutters. Approximately 33% of these female apparel workers operate in informal capacities (for comparison, only 13% of the male workers are informal). Many employees of the industry are internal migrants living in shared rental accommodations.

The initial phase of the pandemic (March-June 2020) witnessed sudden lockdowns, income loss, and restricted access to healthcare. Apparel workers, particularly internal migrants,  faced many challenges during this period due to the nature of their work and their living arrangements.

Figure 1: Key Phases of COVID-19 in Sri Lanka (2020-2021)

Source: IPS.

Residing in overcrowded boarding houses, these workers struggled to implement basic pandemic safety measures like physical distancing and quarantine. Moreover, the absence of systematic information to identify and provide social security benefits to individuals living outside their registered localities further worsened their vulnerability. According to a household survey by the Department of Census and Statistics, only 63% of all apparel workers received cash assistance provided by the government. Some from low-income families who were eligible for cash transfers missed out due to their residential status.

Abrupt job losses also resulted in severe financial consequences. During the initial phase, 24% of female and 11% of male employed in the industry experienced job suspensions due to temporary factory closures. When the apparel factories restarted in May 2020, temporary workers, especially part-time workers, and line helpers, faced job suspensions without benefits. They struggled to secure alternative employment. 

Female workers face more pressure to allocate time for caregiving during health crises. During the second phase of the pandemic, female apparel workers found it challenging to balance their work with the heightened care responsibilities due to the frequent closure of schools and daycare facilities. Non-migrant workers received family and peer support, a resource lacking among migrant workers.

The loss of livelihoods directly impacted the nutrition and well-being of women, despite the government’s relief measures, including ration distribution. Women were twice as likely to experience food shortages or leave the industry.

Figure 2: The Gender Impact of COVID-19 on Apparel Workers in Sri Lanka

Source: Author’s calculations based on the COVID-19 impact survey data.

In addition to the economic shock, 16.3% of female workers lacked or had limited access to health services during the first phase, compared to 8.3% of male workers. Many apparel workers rely on public transport, and its absence made accessing health services difficult. Restricted mobility also impacted the provision of maternal healthcare, as midwives could no longer conduct home visits.

The lack of information hindered effective responses. Key industry informants revealed that the Board of Investment’s attempt to identify and isolate at-risk individuals in export processing zones and the trade unions’ proposal for chemical sanitization of shared worker accommodations, failed due to the absence of a database containing workers’ residential addresses and other useful details.

Furthermore, apparel workers faced social stigma as ready-made garment factories were publicized as pandemic hotspots.


The export-oriented apparel industry in Sri Lanka adapted to the pandemic more quickly and maintained employment levels compared to other, more domestically-oriented manufacturing industries. However, substantial health and economic impacts on female workers were evident, which need to be minimized in future pandemics to enhance the resilience of the industry and the workforce.

The WHO emphasized the importance of strengthening existing programs with community-centered and evidence-based policy changes to counter the threat of pathogen X. Policy makers must ensure that these initiatives would benefit all members of the community, especially women.

Informed decision-making is critical for efficient pandemic containment, which requires quick access to information about vulnerable workers through centralized data. Given the large number of internal migrants in the workforce, enhancing information on workers will improve methods of delivering social benefits to them. For instance, ensuring safe living conditions for workers in congested housing and ensuring that workers in low-income brackets receive aid during future pandemic events could be facilitated with such information. Involving more women in decision-making can also guarantee that women-specific needs are not overlooked during emergency responses to crises.

Streamlining pandemic policy responses also entails expanding existing employment benefit programs, such as Employees' Provident Fund (EPF) and Employees Trust Fund (ETF) to cover sudden unemployment resulting from crises, providing a financial safety net until re-entry into employment is feasible, and reducing voluntary exits from the industry.

Chaya Dissanayake
Research Assistant, Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka

Chaya Dissanayake serves as a Research Assistant at the Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka. Her research interests encompass agricultural policies and institutions, disaster risk management, poverty and inequality, SMEs, and women in the workforce. She earned a B.Sc. (Hons) in Agriculture, specializing in Agricultural Economics, from the University of Jaffna. Currently, she is pursuing an MSc in Integrated Water Resource Management at the Postgraduate Institute of Agriculture, Peradeniya.

Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka

The Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka is an autonomous economic research organization, established by an Act of Parliament, in Colombo. Its mission is to conduct high-quality, independent, policy-relevant research to provide robust evidence for policymaking and improve the lives of all Sri Lankans.

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