Colombo’s Open-Air Laundromats Thrive, Despite Modern Washing Machines
The families working in Colombo’s open air laundry have been there almost a century. One worker explains how the city’s Laundrywatta competes in the age of automation.
Sumanasiri started washing clothes at the tender age of 15. He is 57 years old now. His face is wrinkled and his hair is white, his belly pouches at his waist.
Sumanasiri has spent 42 years working at what is known as the Laundrywatta – these are two locations in Colombo where open air laundries have been located for, literally, generations – and he’s washed everything from handkerchiefs to curtains, for clients ranging from the poorest to the very wealthy of the Sri Lankan capital.
The Laundrywatta where Sumanasiri works is located at the end of the suburb of Kotahena in Colombo. The government started the Laundrywatta areas by providing tanks for washing, stores and washing stones in 1922. Locals pay rent to the city council to work there – for example, around 11.25 rupees (around 7 euro cents) to hire the storage facilities.
We must bring the clothes when we promised to deliver. Otherwise we’re out of a job.
Despite the increasing number of electric washing machines and laundromats in the city, the Laundrywatta area is still popular and is crewed by around 30 families, all of whom have been washing here for years. Many locals of the capital still prefer to have their laundry done by hand, by these experienced washers. Often company or state employees will bring batches of uniforms or other official clothing to the Laundrywatta; for this, they earn a fee for themselves.
Men like Sumanasiri work every day of every year. “We cannot take leave and some days we work from five in the morning to eight at night,” Sumanasiri says. “We have to finish, you see. We cannot simply leave un-ironed or unwashed clothing here. That cannot happen in this job.”
Sumanasiri’s family have been in this trade for a long time. When his father died, the water tank, storage room and ironing room that his family use went to his brother. After his brother died, his sister-in-law became the head of the business and now Sumanasiri works for her.
She pays Sumanasiri a salary of about 35,000 rupees (around 214 euros) a month. “But that’s enough for me,” says Sumanasiri, who lives alone and has never married.
There are also his brother’s children. But they are not so interested in doing laundry for a living, which is part of the reason Sumanasiri is still here.
The younger generation have made different choices, working as stone masons, in the Colombo harbour or overseas, among other things.
So how does the system work at Laundrywatta? “There are companies that bring the dirty clothes to us,” Sumanasiri explains. “If nobody brings us dirty washing, then we go around town and collect it.”
The dirty washing is collected in one storage room where items are numbered and categorized. Clothes are marked as to ownership and then sorted into types of washing. Some will be boiled, others will be soaked, clothes with patches will be treated more carefully and different materials are used for detergent – these include caustic soda, bleach and ordinary laundry detergent.
Next to the store room for dirty washing, is the ironing room. There are 30 storage rooms and 30 ironing rooms at Laundrywatta, with each run by one of the 30 families doing business here.
The ironing rooms are filled with the smell of fresh laundry as dry washing is smoothed out with old-fashioned, charcoal-filled irons. The ironers keep assessing the heat of their tool by tapping the middle finger of their left hands on the bottom of the heavy irons. Sumanasiri’s middle finger is as hard as a shell from doing this for so many years.
After the clothes have been washed, dried and ironed, the laundry staff deliver the washing back to its owners.
“That’s when we get paid,” Sumanasiri explains. “We must bring the clothes back on the date and at the time at which we promised to deliver,” he adds. “Otherwise the trust is broken and we won’t be given that person’s washing again. If that happens, we’re out of a job. That’s why we work all day, every day, no matter what the weather. The most important thing is trust. And I believe that is why people still come to the Laundrywatta after all these years, even in this modern world,” he concludes, revealing the secret of Laundrywatta’s longevity and appeal.
Photography by Ajith Seneviratne