Colombo Telegraph

The ‘Jungee’ PM

By Grusha Andrews

Ranil Wickremesinghe’s mother is late Nalini Wijewardene, the benefactress of the supreme hub of Theravada Buddhism, the Kelaniya temple. His father is late Esmond Wickremesinghe, the Editorial Director under Ranil’s grandfather DR Wijewardene’s Lake House. Ranil is the recipient of a free honorary doctorate in law from Deakin University, Australia in 2017, orator at the Oxford Union and the biggest proponent of liberal democracy. He is also the Prime Minister of our republic. And he has delivered his most distasteful, shameless hee-haw on 4th March 2019.

At an event organized for the launch of Export Supplies Zone of Bingiriya, to an audience consisting predominantly of women who are working in the garment sector, PM Ranil Wickremesinghe in his characteristic delivery of Sinhalese thought it fit to insult the underwear of women referring to them as ‘jungee’ – a slang word used to describe the lower body garment used by women. Whilst the word ‘jungee’ is not considered a ‘dirty’ word, its use by the PM of our nation in a derogatory manner contributes to compound the already existing stigma for workers in the garment sector, particularly, women.

His exact words were: “the best female ‘jungees’ are manufactured in Sri Lanka. Ask Victoria’s Secret where those ‘jungees’ come from! The women know”. In all fairness, Ranil said this in the context of referring to the initial views on the garment industry in Sri Lanka calling these factories ‘tailor shops’, ‘under garment shops’ etc.

More than his words it is his derogatory facial expression, jeering laughter and mocking body language, reducing his audience to a state of humiliation that hurt. Here is a cultural ignoramus, the PM of our nation, who thinks it’s funny to infer to our garment workers as ‘jungee stitchers’. 

Is he brain damaged, senile, or plain arrogant? 

May be he thought it fashionable to use the word  ‘jungee’ on the same week Donald Trump thought it fit to use the work ‘fuck ‘ in his Conservative Political Action Conference address? Would he use this debasing language on his Colombo elite cousins and wives of friends? Would he use the word ‘jungee’ when referring to his wife Maithree Wickremesinghe’s wardrobe – yes, the same Maithree Wickremesinghe, the gender researcher and Professor? The same ‘classy’, ‘educated’, ‘simple’, ‘sarala Maithree’, ‘reincarnation of Elena Jayewardene’, who was following Ranil like a jenny in Thirupathi, kissing the kovil walls- lots of class, lots of intellect! (We cringe, Prof, we cringe).

Is It A Big Deal?

The author had several discussions about this delivery by the PM with several men including the Editor Colombo Telegraph who sprung to a semi-defense of the PM on his Facebook stating that the words were taken out of context and the focus should be that the PM was actually trying to say that in spite of the initial skepticism, the garment industry has come so far that we manufacture the most expensive undergarments for brands such as Victoria’s Secret. 

But, the editor CT is a man. And he does not get to mansplain the hurt, humiliation and the demotivation PM’s language can inflict on the hearts of the audience, largely consisting of women, and the industry in general. 

Even more repulsive is the article written by yet another woman, Punya Samarakoon trivializing the PM’s comments carried on Colombo Telegraph, making light of PM’s comments. The author basically advocates to us to get over our fragile primness, stop being so excited about a ‘jungee’ and suck it. 

According to the World Bank report in 2016, 71% of the garment workers (‘jungee stitchers’ in Ranil’s reality) are women. And they earn less than 55 USD cents per hour working as a garment worker in Sri Lanka. In spite of the tall claims by the industry and the government on quality and work condition compliance, they cannot earn a living wage (calculated as a puny Rs 20 000) with 8 hours of work. They earn this amount or more with countless hours of forced labor in the form of over-time and night shifts. 

In 2017, the garment industry contributed 4.8 Billion USD for national revenue. The export garments constituted 40% of our total exports in the same year. The garment industry is the biggest industrial employer of Sri Lanka and the highest foreign exchange earner. 

So, yes. All those unending ‘official trips’ of Ranil that occur every time he survives yet another stressful political upheaval – paid for by the jungee stitchers’. All those opulent halls of the Temple Trees that Ranil donates to Chathura Senaratnes of the world to have people sponsored weddings – maintained by the jungee stitchers. All that wealth, Ranil with his limited oratorical skills and recent display of lack of reason can never earn if he were to practice as a lawyer- and yet spends bullet proof vehicles, entourage, foreign trips and what not- paid for by the jungee stitchers. The 50 day constitutional coup tamasha that we all endured in the name of democracy, defending Ranil, paying for the water, electricity and AC for UNP supporters camping in the Temple Trees- paid for by the jungee stitchers. Ranil doesn’t do these things with his Wickremesinghe/Wijewardene inheritance. He does all this with our money. And he has the gall to insult the sweat and the tears of these workers. 

Shame on you Ranil. 

Uncalculated Human Cost

In the immediate aftermath of his speech two organizations fighting for the rights of garment workers, “Daa-bindu Saamuhikaya” (The Sweat Collective) and Savisthree” (Power Women) condemned his words calling them ‘stigma inducing’ and ‘demoralizing’. They mentioned that the PM of our nation ‘crumbled our dignity in the matter of seconds’.

In 2011 in Sri Lankan garment industry launched a multimillion rupee campaign to encourage the female workers to join the industry that was fast losing its appeal due to social stigma. In some parts of rural Sri Lanka the garment workers were still called “Juki- Kaali” (“Juki Bits”). Juki was a popular brand of sewing machine used in the garment factories in the 80s and 90s). 

The President of the Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF) Tuly Cooray outlined the 3 main reasons that were creating a dearth of workers joining the industry. 

1. Poor image. Name calling such as “Juki- Kaali”

2. Cat calls and sexual harassment 

3. The condition where the workers have to work all 7 days depending on the orders

What he didn’t mention was the uncalculated human cost of being an internal immigrant in one’s own country. The poor living and the travelling conditions escaping the so-called compliance certification processes that the industry boasts of; the separation from family and children; the plight of children whose mothers leave home- the sexual harassment and depravation faced by the children of these workers in motherless households; the difficulty in obtaining leave; health and sexual health issues; lack of access to contraceptive services provided with dignity; the issues of the workers in smaller garment factories that escape the scrutiny of the global standards of MAS holdings or Brandix. 

It is this uncalculated human cost that is making it more and more difficult for the industry to find employees who will last. Hence any time is a good time, not to plummet it further by using derogatory language, belittling inferences, sarcastic gestures.  

Leave all this aside. 

When one is the PM of a nation, is it really necessary to show the men and women you rule, who the boss is? Is it necessary to hurt them with untoward words, when you already have so much comfort, recognition, power and privilege? Is it really necessary to remind them that “I’m the PM- and you stitch ‘jungees’? 

So Ranil, grow a brain. 

And the next time you feel the urge to insult the sweat and tears of the workers of our nation by using words like ‘jungee’ and mocking them with spastic gestures, rehearse in front of the resplendent gender researcher at home, Maithree Wickremesinghe and use those words on her. And see if you come out alive. 

Finally, Ranil, here’s some evening entertainment to you from a song in your second language –Sinhala. A song by Victor Rathnayake launched nearly ten years ago as a part of the destigmatizing campaign of the garment industry. Listen to its chorus.

“She has the love and nobility of a mother within

Do not look at this sister with belittling eyes”.

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