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Free from debt and bonded labour in Sri Lanka’s fisheries

ILO's project helps free fishermen from debt bondage and supports livelihoods.

Feature | Valaipadu, Sri Lanka | 01 November 2017
Kristin Weyanathabaln
Valaipadu, Sri Lanka (ILO News) - Kristin Weyanathabaln has another demanding day ahead, as he sets out in his fishing boat off the coast of northern Sri Lanka. But he smiles as he recounts how he has managed to free himself from the shackles of bonded labour.

“I am now free from debt,” the 48-year-old fisherman says.

Weyanathabaln had only started fishing in 2010, one year after the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war that lasted nearly 26 years and claimed countless lives and livelihoods. He had high hopes but no money, and had to borrow 100,000 rupees ($650) from a money lender to buy a fishing net. The interest rate on repayment was an astonishing 300 per cent.

Like many other fishermen in Kilinochchi district, he quickly fell into the trap of debt bondage. He was forced to sell all his catch to the same moneylender as a form of repayment, and with fishing being seasonal he had to borrow further from the moneylender during off-season to make ends meet. “I had to agree to the price he set. I know it was lower than market price but I didn’t have a choice,” says Weyanathabaln. He barely made enough money to care for his wife and five children.

Weyanathabaln with his wife and one of his children
His life changed after the International Labour Organization (ILO), which was actively engaged in post-war rehabilitation, intervened through the Local Empowerment through Economic Development (LEED) project.

The project provided financing and other support to fisheries cooperatives, that now help fishermen pay back their loans, open bank accounts and manage household finances. The cooperatives also buy and market members’ catch. With the middleman cut out, fishermen are now getting almost twice as much as they used to for their catch. Each fisherman has to place a portion of the income into a bank savings account, while some of the money is reinvested to fund community activities.

Weyanathabaln eventually managed to break free from bondage.

Weyanathabaln is now free from loan.
“I have my own boat; I purchased it from the income that I earned through the fishing. I also started to save which I have never done before,” says Weyanathabaln.

The project has also provided training and mentoring to the Poonakary Fishermen Cooperative Societies’ Union (FCSU) in Kilinochchi district, which has now become a training provider and provides mentoring services to cooperatives in other districts. The FCSU represents some 2,000 fishermen organized in 14 cooperatives.

Launched in 2011 with the support from the Australian Government, LEED aims to help rebuild livelihoods that were shattered by the civil war.