A factory owner rallies his workers - and reopens doors in Sri Lanka

When roiling black water turned the TriStar garment factory into a wasteland, owner Kumar Dewapura gathered his 400 frightened workers together for a pep talk no one here can forget. He affirmed that all his employees were a family and that they would all be treated as such.

Mr. Dewapura, one of the most successful business figures in Sri Lanka, stood in the litter-strewn factory yard on Dec. 28, two days after the catastrophe, and talked about putting the tsunami behind them. He started a cleanup campaign that day while many victims were still wandering blankly. He gave shelter on site for 35 workers with no home. The next morning he showed up in a convoy of grocery-stuffed SUVs, and proceeded to cook breakfast for employees. Machinists came in to fix sewing machines. By the fifth day, the humblest of employees were interviewed by staff about their losses.

By Jan. 8, when 10 red-robed monks came from the local Buddhist temple for a lunch before the opening ceremony, the factory in this town some 50 miles south of Colombo had been sprayed down, cleaned, and swept. New tan paint covered ugly water marks, and the entire inside, from workbenches to garment racks, was painted a creamy white.

The effect was "magic," says a worker. The employees forgot what time it was and swung into a restoration campaign they worked overtime on. They cleaned and painted old fans and the ceiling, that were far above the water line - things that had been dirty for years, they said.

The fears of another tsunami did not entirely subside among TriStar employees. But their attitude and temperament, witnessed over three days of visits by the Monitor, completely turned around. Tri-Star, which makes fine needlework items for Marks & Spencer and the Gap, is planning to resume an order for "gentlemen's trousers" it started before Dec. 26.

In the pep talk, Dewapura went well past what any employee in Sri Lanka might expect from an employer, and certainly past anything the government has made clear.

He affirmed the company would restore 40 destroyed homes at no cost, and said the work would be done in six months. Management also planned to buy items like TVs and radios, precious and expensive items hard to replace on a monthly salary of $38.

Tall, elegant, and friendly, Dewapura wears a white shirt with silver collar tabs over a black and white sarong. He says that after the flood, the main thing was to speak immediately to workers: "If you restart quickly, you show that you care... You don't leave [employees] with no income and no security... You show regard and help them relax.

"These are the values of my parents, they are Buddhist, and they also make good business sense," he continues. "If workers can start hearing music and listening to news, that will make them happy. My employees work hard. I want to give them not just what they lost, but give them more than they lost."

The Kosgoda plant was the only one of more than 30 of Dewapura's plants to be harmed.

Dewapura is regarded here as a pioneer in needlepoint tailoring, as well as a concept known as "town to village" - an effort to allow local people to be given work and dignity without being forced to leave their families and travel to the city. He is known in Sri Lanka by the title "deshabandu," which translates roughly as "sir."

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