Stitching identities : work, play and politics among Sri Lanka's free trade zone garment factory workers

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2002-05

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Abstract

This dissertation examines negotiation of alternative identities among migrant garment factory workers at Sri Lanka’s Katunayake Free Trade Zone (FTZ). By analyzing workers’ everyday social interactions and expressive practices at different sites, I demonstrate how workers created and negotiated their identities— resisting, appropriating, transforming and recreating the images constructed for and about them in varied discourses. I analyze identity formation at two levels--how workers negotiated individual identities amidst the varied discourses they encountered as “unmarried village daughters” and as “migrant industrial workers” and the ways in which they created an overarching identity as a gendered group of migrant workers who were different both from other women and male industrial workers. With those objectives the dissertation weaves its way through FTZ garment factory workers’ lives: in garment factories, in boarding houses, amidst recreational activities and back in the villages. The study focused on FTZ workers’ resistance, agency, and consciousness and makes several points; identities are multiple and workers situationally shifted identities within multiple relationships of power; Workers’ developed differential consciousness, which facilitated the movement between identity stances; The FTZ is a transformational space where cultural forms meet and women constructed inbetween identities as modern industrial workers with traditional brake pads; contrary to the prevalent discourses on victimized women, FTZ workers became desiring subjects who sought material, physical and emotional pleasures; In narratives they manipulated varied discursive influences to construct a story about themselves that they and others could accept; workers created and performed a counter hegemonic culture within the FTZ area through “less than respectable” tastes and cultural practices; by developing a new life style and world view that was looked down upon by the dominant classes and then celebrating the resultant stigma, the workers, registered an alternative group identity as “migrant FTZ garment factory workers,” which they temporarily disavowed once back in their villages; By reassuming and performing assigned roles and rituals at the villages the workers demonstrated the location-specific nature of the particular counter hegemonic formation and locally meaningful strategies of managing stigma.

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