Consequent to the second wave of COVID-19 infections, apparel companies have been working to the guidelines issued by the Environment, Occupational Health and Food Safety Directorate under the Health Ministry, which set out in detail the steps to be taken to ensure that factories are made as safe as possible.
They are covered by the Health Ministry acronym DReAM to ensure social distancing, proper respiratory etiquette, hand washing, sanitising and the proper use of masks. This protocol is rolled out throughout the plants and includes transport facilities, canteens and locker rooms.
Plants will also continue to work with their local PHI on the micro level planning for COVID-19, so that the individual circumstances of each plant are considered. The basic routines of temperature checks, hand washing and the compulsory wearing of masks are now standard protocols.
Employee awareness is a key part of the COVID-19 battle as our employees are urged not just to look after each other but also colleagues and their families. It’s important that the DReAM protocols are cascaded through the community to reduce the risk of infection
A number of changes have to be made in places like canteens, where previously, employees sat in close proximity to each other and used common serving utensils. In many cases, employees now have allocated seating and toilet access, to allow for proper contact tracing.
Random PCR testing is also a fundamental although a practical issue arises as testing capacity at private hospitals is limited. Test results are sent to the BOI, to help authorities have a macro picture perspective of testing across the island.
The health Ministry has also now approved the use of a Rapid Antigen Test, which we hope will greatly assist the process, as it will allow for plants to test a larger number of people and get quicker results and allow for a more structured testing process.
Plants will also continue to work with their local PHI on the micro level planning for COVID-19, so that the individual circumstances of each plant are considered. The basic routines of temperature checks, hand washing and the compulsory wearing of masks are now standard protocols
Employee awareness is a key part of the COVID-19 battle as our employees are urged not just to look after each other but also colleagues and their families. It’s important that the DReAM protocols are cascaded through the community to reduce the risk of infection.
At the request of the Health Ministry and the Board of Investment (BOI), all manufacturing locations have identified responsible officers as ‘Focal Points’ for COVID preparedness at plants. These Focal Points are shared with the Health Ministry and BOI and are the immediate contact points for COVID-related issues. The Focal Points have undergone training to help ensure plant level action in COVID preparedness aligned with the ministry guidelines.
COVID-19 is not an apparel-centric problem but is a national issue. With that comes a risk to every one of us, irrespective of the workplace. It is important therefore that each citizen responsibly follows all government guidelines. As apparel manufacturers, we are tasked with ensuring absolute compliance within our plants but we must also educate and train our employees on cascading the guidelines throughout their personal lives and communities, to ensure the protection net is spread widely.
With the industry having already experienced this cascading of habit via its sustainability and green initiatives from its employees to their families and communities, this culture of learning and development can be emulated at the plants in time of crises like these. Protecting our employees is critical to us and hence, the unwavering emphasis we have placed in ensuring that all standards and protocols are maintained at the highest compliance levels.
With regards to hostel accommodation for employees in the FTZs, this is an issue that’s wider than the apparel sector, which has just over 26,000 out of probably 60,000 employed in the two big zones of Katunayake and Biyagama. The hostels are generally run privately and employees usually opt to stay with friends and/or family members working in the zone.
The BOI and Health Ministry are working on plans to create awareness and the sanitisation of these hostels with the industry assisting wherever possible. The BOI has issued new guidelines for employees and hostels, which are being rolled out to the plants as part of COVID preparedness.
The priority is to see our way out of the COVID crisis. Apparel was one of the sectors hit first by COVID as supply of raw material was interrupted in February 2020. Since then, our markets have gone into lockdown seeing a massive reduction in our Order Book. To date, the industry has lost 28 percent in revenue from last year. Our resilience therefore will be the key to returning to the previous levels of exports in the next couple of years.
COVID has opened opportunities in the supply of PPE for example. There are companies who have integrated medical PPE into their business model going forward and are investing in technology, the processes and the infrastructure to supply PPE in the long term.
The business model developing in our buyers’ market, where there is less resilience, is a reduced reliance on brick and mortar stores and a shift to online purchasing. This opens a window of opportunity for Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka apparel has already been working on a B2C (Business to Customer) model, where stock is held in Sri Lanka and shipped direct to individual buyers. There are some regulatory constraints but we are working closely with the government regarding them and are confident we can offer these services to our customers soon.
Sri Lanka is renowned for its quick order turnaround. The upcoming Fabric Processing Zone in Eravur will help improve our fabric manufacturing base and increase our value addition, while also developing an area of the country that has not had much development. We intend working closely with the government on this initiative and are appreciative of the investments being infused for the required infrastructure.
I have every confidence that we will emerge from this crisis stronger and continue as a serious player in the global apparel sourcing arena.
(Yohan Lawrence is ExCo Member – JAAF and Past Chairman – SLAEA)