In a crisis, how does an SME achieve resilience?

A COVID-19 case study in Sri Lanka

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on the business environment in Sri Lanka. Due to movement control orders and rapid changes in consumer buying habits, many small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) are facing the very real prospect of shutting down permanently, with grave implications for the livelihoods of thousands of workers.

For one of these businesses, Selyn, the pandemic was a test of resilience. How did they manage to stay afloat during the crisis while upholding their commitment to responsible business practices?


The following case study is the first installment in a series that feature SMEs putting responsible business practices to work in achieving business success. UNDP and the EU, joint partners in the Business and Human Rights in Asia project, applaud enterprises that put the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights at the center of their business strategies and operations.


All businesses have a responsibility
to respect human rights

Selyn’s story began in 1991 in the village of Wanduragala in Kurunegala situated in the North Western Province of Sri Lanka. Sandra Wanduragala, Attorney-at-law, funded the company to provide jobs and empower local women. Starting with a workforce of 15, Selyn now works with close to 1000 artisans within its networks. The company grew to be one of the country’s largest social enterprises, exporting its fair-trade products to over 40 countries around the world and retailing in premium sales outlets within the country.

Sustainability and respect for employees’ needs are integral to planning Selyn’s business operations.

"We are not merely a handloom company; we are a community and social enterprise whose focus is sustainability."
Sandra’s daughter, Selyna Peiris, Director of Selyn

Selyn’s story began in 1991 in the village of Wanduragala in Kurunegala situated in the North Western Province of Sri Lanka. Sandra Wanduragala, Attorney-at-law, funded the company to provide jobs and empower local women. Starting with a workforce of 15, Selyn now works with close to 1000 artisans within its networks. The company grew to be one of the country’s largest social enterprises, exporting its fair-trade products to over 40 countries around the world and retailing in premium sales outlets within the country.

Sustainability and respect for employees’ needs are integral to planning Selyn’s business operations.

"We are not merely a handloom company; we are a community and social enterprise whose focus is sustainability."
Sandra’s daughter, Selyna Peiris, Director of Selyn

As 90% of Selyn’s workforce are women, the company has developed employment options that give its employees and networks sufficient flexibility to remain in the workforce.

Selyn also strives to be a plastic free enterprise by 2030. Further, production waste is used to make craft items such as jewelry and home items, ground fabric pieces are recycled to produce paper from pulp, and wastewater from fabric dye is treated and used to water vegetable gardens at the factory. Vegetables produced here are distributed free to workers.

But the crisis brought by the global pandemic disrupted normal operations and brought about new challenges for the company.

During the lockdown period of March/April 2020, Selyn’s retail operations came to a standstill. With the island-wide lockdown, its export orders became jeopardized, either being cancelled, downsized or postponed, and the company found themselves in a zero-income situation struggling to pay employee salaries and meet other fixed overheads.

As 90% of Selyn’s workforce are women, the company has developed employment options that give its employees and networks sufficient flexibility to remain in the workforce.

Selyn also strives to be a plastic free enterprise by 2030. Further, production waste is used to make craft items such as jewelry and home items, ground fabric pieces are recycled to produce paper from pulp, and wastewater from fabric dye is treated and used to water vegetable gardens at the factory. Vegetables produced here are distributed free to workers.

But the crisis brought by the global pandemic disrupted normal operations and brought about new challenges for the company.

During the lockdown period of March/April 2020, Selyn’s retail operations came to a standstill. With the island-wide lockdown, its export orders became jeopardized, either being cancelled, downsized or postponed, and the company found themselves in a zero-income situation struggling to pay employee salaries and meet other fixed overheads.

To survive the crisis Selyn introduced
several changes to its operations

When faced with the choice of laying off their employees, the leadership was clear: no one at Selyn was to lose their jobs.

The management decided to introduce 5–20% executive level pay cuts to ensure that no layoffs were made during the lockdown period. All artisans were to receive a basic allowance to meet their basic expenses. Orders made to craft artisans outside Selyn’s direct network of handloom weavers were honored and necessary payments made to ensure their survival.

Health and safety measures were imposed to ensure the safety of employees. In the factories and workshops, Selyn introduced regular temperature checks and distributed herbal drinks among staff to boost their immunity as per the advice of Sri Lankas health authorities.

The company also provided PPE equipment to its workers, organized daily transport services allowing employees to travel to work without using public transportation.

Selyn already had flexible employment options and day care facilities to support women with elderly parents and children. During the crisis, work-from-home arrangements already widely used among more than 300 direct employees and the company’s extended network of independent homeworkers were also further encouraged.

"It’s not just about empowering women. It’s about making things equal for both women and men to make the best of their lives, especially women in rural areas, by giving them the flexibility to work from home and a very valuable sense of security."
Amila, Production Executive

When faced with the choice of laying off their employees, the leadership was clear: no one at Selyn was to lose their jobs.

The management decided to introduce 5–20% executive level pay cuts to ensure that no layoffs were made during the lockdown period. All artisans were to receive a basic allowance to meet their basic expenses. Orders made to craft artisans outside Selyn’s direct network of handloom weavers were honored and necessary payments made to ensure their survival.

Health and safety measures were imposed to ensure the safety of employees. In the factories and workshops, Selyn introduced regular temperature checks and distributed herbal drinks among staff to boost their immunity as per the advice of Sri Lankas health authorities.

The company also provided PPE equipment to its workers, organized daily transport services allowing employees to travel to work without using public transportation.

Selyn already had flexible employment options and day care facilities to support women with elderly parents and children. During the crisis, work-from-home arrangements already widely used among more than 300 direct employees and the company’s extended network of independent homeworkers were also further encouraged.

"It’s not just about empowering women. It’s about making things equal for both women and men to make the best of their lives, especially women in rural areas, by giving them the flexibility to work from home and a very valuable sense of security."
Amila, Production Executive

The company started a new line of
products to adapt to customer needs

As the pandemic spread, Selyn started making fabric face masks as part of a global initiative of the World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO). The company considers their ability to pivot production their greatest achievement in handling the crisis, as the initiative enabled them to cover their costs, protect capital reserves, stay in business and ensure that there were no layoffs during the crisis.

The #peoplesmask initiative was also able to provide a plastic-free alternative to the regular PPEs and to an extent relieve the pressure on the demand for surgical masks in the country.

Selyn changed their customer focus as well to boost orders. Prior to the breakout of COVID-19 the company solely focused on larger orders. However, post lockdown they made a decision to develop exclusive products for smaller brands producing fewer number of items but for a higher value, which they believe will help ensure that they can give consistent work to their networks and keep independent homeworker networks busy with small-batch orders.

"I head the homeworkers unit at Selyn. We make sure that the women who work with us can balance their home duties while working here. Sometimes they can’t come to get the materials. If I have to go by bike to give them their work, I do that too."
Deepal, Head of Homeworkers Unit

During the pandemic the company’s toy line, which is predominantly exported, introduced the ‘Everyday Heroes’ collection. The new dolls are honoring people on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis, teaching children the important role front-line workers play in our day-to-day lives. In addition, Selyn created a reusable cloth sanitary pad which through a “Buy one, Gift One” campaign took to raising awareness for menstrual hygiene in Sri Lanka while creating a campaign to gift pads to the most vulnerable of communities in the country.

As the pandemic spread, Selyn started making fabric face masks as part of a global initiative of the World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO). The company considers their ability to pivot production their greatest achievement in handling the crisis, as the initiative enabled them to cover their costs, protect capital reserves, stay in business and ensure that there were no layoffs during the crisis.

The #peoplesmask initiative was also able to provide a plastic-free alternative to the regular PPEs and to an extent relieve the pressure on the demand for surgical masks in the country.

Selyn changed their customer focus as well to boost orders. Prior to the breakout of COVID-19 the company solely focused on larger orders. However, post lockdown they made a decision to develop exclusive products for smaller brands producing fewer number of items but for a higher value, which they believe will help ensure that they can give consistent work to their networks and keep independent homeworker networks busy with small-batch orders.

"I head the homeworkers unit at Selyn. We make sure that the women who work with us can balance their home duties while working here. Sometimes they can’t come to get the materials. If I have to go by bike to give them their work, I do that too."
Deepal, Head of Homeworkers Unit

During the pandemic the company’s toy line, which is predominantly exported, introduced the ‘Everyday Heroes’ collection. The new dolls are honoring people on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis, teaching children the important role front-line workers play in our day-to-day lives. In addition, Selyn created a reusable cloth sanitary pad which through a “Buy one, Gift One” campaign took to raising awareness for menstrual hygiene in Sri Lanka while creating a campaign to gift pads to the most vulnerable of communities in the country.

The crisis also revealed
areas for improvement

Despite the company’s commitment to zero-waste practices, during the COVID-19 pandemic Selyn faced issues with regards to packaging waste. Due to safety and hygiene concerns, they had to revert to plastic packaging for fabric masks, as the products sent via courier had to be sealed in plastic for hygiene and safety reasons.

Selyn was faced with no alternative options for safe packaging during lockdown as no local materials could be sourced. The company is now looking to advocate for innovation packaging and technologies and cross-industry collaboration for sustainable packaging to help create eco-friendly solutions for businesses, especially during a crisis.

Despite the company’s commitment to zero-waste practices, during the COVID-19 pandemic Selyn faced issues with regards to packaging waste. Due to safety and hygiene concerns, they had to revert to plastic packaging for fabric masks, as the products sent via courier had to be sealed in plastic for hygiene and safety reasons.

Selyn was faced with no alternative options for safe packaging during lockdown as no local materials could be sourced. The company is now looking to advocate for innovation packaging and technologies and cross-industry collaboration for sustainable packaging to help create eco-friendly solutions for businesses, especially during a crisis.

Conscious of global and local
challenges beyond COVID-19,
Selyn aims to create a safe and
satisfying work environment for all

Every year, over a hundred thousand women migrate for employment, the majority as domestic workers. By providing women with flexible employment options Selyn’s business model allows them to stay close to home and take care of their children instead of seeking foreign employment and leaving their children vulnerable to abuse and harm.

“In Sri Lanka we see many women who are not able to work for many reasons, such as marriage or childbirth. I want to be part of an organization which makes an effort to keep women in the workforce.”  
Asanka, Production Manager

In addition to the homeworker system and day care facilities, Selyn provides bicycles for its workers for easier commutes. The company also organizes health camps, financial literacy programs, life skills and entrepreneurship trainings and other learning opportunities to support the growth of independent communities in charge of the choices they make through the Selyn Foundation which has been set up to further impact the communities they work in.

While Selyn was founded to empower local women through sustainable work opportunities, the company also recognizes the importance of empowering male employees. Men play a crucial role in the journey towards empowering women and achieving gender equality. Many of Selyn’s male employees, largely at a management level, support and spearhead the company to further it vision.

"I support my wife to run her own business. We’ve set up a handloom workshop for Selyn in our home and now we employ other women in the village too."
Ekanayake, Independent Workshop Manager

Every year, over a hundred thousand women migrate for employment, the majority as domestic workers. By providing women with flexible employment options Selyn’s business model allows them to stay close to home and take care of their children instead of seeking foreign employment and leaving their children vulnerable to abuse and harm.

“In Sri Lanka we see many women who are not able to work for many reasons, such as marriage or childbirth. I want to be part of an organization which makes an effort to keep women in the workforce.”
Asanka, Production Manager

In addition to the homeworker system and day care facilities, Selyn provides bicycles for its workers for easier commutes. The company also organizes health camps, financial literacy programs, life skills and entrepreneurship trainings and other learning opportunities to support the growth of independent communities in charge of the choices they make through the Selyn Foundation which has been set up to further impact the communities they work in.

While Selyn was founded to empower local women through sustainable work opportunities, the company also recognizes the importance of empowering male employees. Men play a crucial role in the journey towards empowering women and achieving gender equality. Many of Selyn’s male employees, largely at a management level, support and spearhead the company to further it vision.

"I support my wife to run her own business. We’ve set up a handloom workshop for Selyn in our home and now we employ other women in the village too."
Ekanayake, Independent Workshop Manager

Learning from each other to build forward better

In September 2020, Selyn responded to UNDP Sri Lanka’s call to share the company’s learnings through the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The spirit of collaboration, sharing experiences and learning from each other is essential to build better enterprises and to support our communities. We are happy to share our story and hope that it gives inspiration to other small and medium-sized businesses; to show them that size does not matter, it’s the heart to create impact that will enable us to grow and succeed. We hope that our work will encourage business to invest more in a human-rights centered approach."
Selyna Peiris, Director of Selyn

UNDP’s  multi-country Business and Human Rights project funded by the European Union titled B+HR Asia: Enabling Sustainable Economic Development through the Protect, Respect and Remedy Framework, works to promote the adoption of the UN Guiding Principles among business. In Sri Lanka, UNDP B+HR Asia organizes events, trainings and workshops to support business ensure that their operations are respecting human rights and give opportunities for companies to share good practices.


Follow UNDP B+HR Asia on Twitter, visit our website and sign up for our newsletter.

Visit the UNDP Sri Lanka website for more information on UNDP's work in Sri Lanka.


The case study is published to share good practices and human rights centred approaches among business communities; it does not constitute an endorsement or certification by the European Union and the United Nations Development Programme.

In September 2020, Selyn responded to UNDP Sri Lanka’s call to share the company’s learnings through the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The spirit of collaboration, sharing experiences and learning from each other is essential to build better enterprises and to support our communities. We are happy to share our story and hope that it gives inspiration to other small and medium-sized businesses; to show them that size does not matter, it’s the heart to create impact that will enable us to grow and succeed. We hope that our work will encourage business to invest more in a human-rights centered approach."
Selyna Peiris, Director of Selyn

UNDP’s  multi-country Business and Human Rights project funded by the European Union titled B+HR Asia: Enabling Sustainable Economic Development through the Protect, Respect and Remedy Framework, works to promote the adoption of the UN Guiding Principles among business. In Sri Lanka, UNDP B+HR Asia organizes events, trainings and workshops to support business ensure that their operations are respecting human rights and give opportunities for companies to share good practices.

Follow UNDP B+HR Asia on Twitter, visit our website and sign up for our newsletter.

Visit the UNDP Sri Lanka website for more information on UNDP's work in Sri Lanka.


The case study is published to share good practices and human rights centred approaches among business communities; it does not constitute an endorsement or certification by the European Union and the United Nations Development Programme.