Every Monday morning at 8 a.m.—weather permitting—a Cessna grand caravan 208 leaves the Colombo International Airport in Ratmalana to fly east to Batticola, once the embattled space where the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fought for years.
Each week, captain Duke D’Souza and first officer Sohan Samarasinghe navigate the skies with a select group of employees from the Brandix apparel factory, which covers more than 120,000 square feet on Cemetery road, an 8-to-9-hour drive from Colombo. The employees return to Colombo for the weekend and Monday morning wing their way back to their workstations.
Taking stock on the ground after taking a recent flight in September, Natasha Boralessa, group director, Brandix Apparel Limited, is quick to assess the situation. She is received warmly, given quick updates, addressed by her first name, unusual in Asia where formality and more rigid corporate structures prevail. It is an indication of the corporate culture at Brandix, which with an estimated $1.7 billion turnover and 27 factories across Sri Lanka, might be expected to follow a far more rigid protocol.
Boralessa sits by the long, rectangular table of the conference room, reviewing, catching up: staff updates, work schedules, Covid vaccinations, and the myriad new initiatives, including aid to farmers in the area, drinking water for the staff and providing help for the local school.
All of this presses on, even as the nation, as a whole, endures its worst economic and political crisis in the last 70 years
The effects of a $30 billion debt and the first ever default led the country to bankruptcy. The ensuing political crisis led President Gotabaya Rajapaksha to resign and flee the country. With the devaluation of the Sri Lankan rupee and an inflation rate above 70 percent, a lot of basic needs have become out of reach for Sri Lankans—like food, medicine, transport, and electricity.
“It is time we had a break,” said Boralessa, listing the nation’s string of misfortune over the last decade. “But despite this, business has continued and perhaps given us a larger determination and a larger sense of taking care of the community that we work within. Resilience has been the key.”
While analysts noted that it might take years for the country to emerge from its economic crisis, the agreement in September for a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) of approximately $2.9 billion is s a step toward helping it restructure.
“The objectives of Sri Lanka’s new Fund-supported program are to restore macroeconomic stability and debt sustainability, while safeguarding financial stability, protecting the vulnerable, and stepping up structural reforms to address corruption vulnerabilities and unlock Sri Lanka’s growth potential,” the IMF said in a statement earlier this month.
Despite all the gloom, the Sri Lankan apparel export industry has been holding its own. This is partly because it has been prioritized by the government, as the need for foreign exchange is crucial. Apparel exports from January to July 2022 were up 21 percent over 2021, at $3.24 billion, bringing in much needed money from the outside.
As Yohan Lawrence, secretary general of the Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF) told Sourcing Journal, “There is opportunity in crisis, too. We have to ‘hold out and hold together’ much better at this time.”
It is a motto that leaders at the factory echo.
On the 418,175-square foot factory floor at Batticaloa machines whir as 150,000 pieces per day are manufactured by 4,150 employees, 89 percent of them women. Its mostly briefs and sportswear for customers like Nike, Lidl and Haddad, among others.
Hameed Shazuli, senior manager Human Resources, better known as ‘Sha’ described the way the factory has evolved.
“In 2010 we started about 80 miles away in Punani, and the factory then moved to Batticaloa city in a warehouse converted into a plant in 2012, with some 1,200 workers,” he said. “The new location with a capacity of 5,000 is the only private enterprise that is happening on this scale in the eastern part of the country.”
Shazuli said the area remains very affected by the war, which ended in 2009.
“The people are still very much affected by the memories of what happened over these past decades,” he said. “There is still a lot of rehabilitation going on, but the effect of the war is only the memories. Even in our factory we have a few rehabilitated combatants and the transformation happening in Batticaloa and the community has been great,” he said, citing the example of the buses that pick up and drop off a religiously diverse group of workers.
“Tamil Hindus are 88 percent, Christians are 8 percent, Muslims are 2 percent and Buddhists and rest of the religions are 1 percent; it is a multicultural workplace,” Sha explained. “People were reluctant to go in buses which had different communities or go aboard the bus coming from a different location. But slowly they started to change and now everybody goes in the buses together.”
The factory floor of the building that emerged in 2017 was “transformative in itself,” said general manager Jayanath Panagoda. “This was the top LEED-rated factory in Sri Lanka in 2018, and the second best in the world.”
The entire roof is solar paneled. The electricity generated through these is sent to the national grid and results in a huge reduction in energy bills.
On this day, workers celebrating birthdays were given a flower and a gift. It provided a break from the intense concentration with which the lines of assembled machines and labor function. Lunch time attention shifts to the outdoor cafeterias where huge ceiling fans spin above the meals for the workers.
“In terms of getting people and getting it up and running, it was a challenge,” Boralessa explained. “Since there was hardly any industry here, it was more of a challenge to set up the factory, but people are so hungry to get on with their lives and have that appetite to move forward.”
Boralessa said if there’s one word to describe what sets Brandix apart, it’s “resilience.”
“The factory came up in a location that was war-torn for 30 years,” she said. “It’s a testament of the resilience to the country and its people—we had war, and then Covid, and the economic crisis. This really is a proof of restoration and recovery and rebuilding.”