- Rather than self isolating they are being called to work
- No social distancing or disinfection rounds took place
- Their fate has got nothing to do with contracting the virus
- Garment factory workers don’t have health insurance
- Thousands of manpower workers lost their jobs at the onset of the pandemic
Although the apparel sector is said to be Sri Lanka’s largest export industry, its live wires – the garment factory workers are seldom recognized. Today, they are being further discriminated with the recent COVID cluster that emerged from a garment factory in Minuwangoda. According to Chamila Thushari, Programme Coordinator at Dabindu Collective – an organization established in 1984 advocating to promote and protect the rights of female garment workers in the Free Trade Zone, these workers were taken to quarantine centres without a proper coordination.
Q It has been two weeks since the first case was reported. What issues have the workers faced during this period?
The non-Brandix cluster has started to expand. Workers in other factories have contracted the disease and right now garment workers are like ‘human bombs’. All of them live together in boarding rooms, so the likelihood of them getting infected is high. Rather than self-isolating, they are being called to work. Despite curfew, these workers still report to work. They are not given transport and they either walk or use public transport. How many others will be infected this way? Only a few of them have been given masks and most of them had to purchase on their own. They don’t have sanitizers. While executive level employees are being quarantined in star class hotels, these workers are sent to quarantine centres with barely any facilities. While their basic salary is around Rs.14,500, most of them have had pay cuts and their allowances and bonuses were taken off as well. They don’t have savings and in case of an indefinite curfew period, they don’t have finances to buy essential items in bulk and store them. Most of them buy a vegetable or two depending on the daily allowance they get.
Q Were PCR tests done in a methodical manner?
Not even the PCR testing is done properly, some of them were asked to come the following day. So even if someone is positive you wouldn’t know since the test hasn’t been done. There were no Public Health Inspectors around when they were being encircled and taken to the quarantine centres.
"Even shopkeepers are scared to give them goods anymore! Some had to leave boarding rooms. Some people say it’s the fate of these women, but their fate has got nothing to do with COVID-19"
Q Where are they taken to?
They were taken to quarantine facilities in Dambadeniya, Kalutara and Peradeniya. Most of them are women and they weren’t even able to take their toothbrushes with them. Then their sanitary needs have to be looked into. But everything is happening in an ad hoc manner.
Q Were factories adhering to health guidelines at the onset of COVID? And were workers made aware of
Yes. Sinks were installed to wash hands and temperature checks were done. But that was it. There was no social distancing inside factories whatsoever. Once they go back to the boarding place, around 10-15 workers would use one toilet. No disinfection takes place. As a result, owners of these boarding rooms and hostels are now in fear and these women might even be homeless. There are some hostel owners who come to collect the rent and they don’t look into the needs of their tenants.
Q Are they being further discriminated?
Yes. Even shopkeepers are scared to give them goods anymore! Some had to leave boarding rooms. Some people say it’s the fate of these women, but their fate has got nothing to do with COVID-19. When they are tested positive, we have to keep them psychologically fit. But in turn, they are being demoralized. The woman whom was once called the backbone of the country’s economy, is now treated like a criminal. This has to stop!
"The non-Brandix cluster has started to expand. Workers in other factories have contracted the disease and right now garment factory workers are like ‘human bombs’"
Q Do these workers have health insurance?
No. After working for three and-a-half years, they are entitled to gratuity, but workers stay for five years and come through manpower agencies. There were around 70,000 vacancies for garment factory workers at one point. They are given a target of 60 per hour. This means in a line of 14 workers, one piece of clothing is finished by the time it reaches the 14th person. So if there’s a delay at any point in this chain, the other person will not be able to meet his/her target. Therefore they don’t drink even water because they want to cut down on the time they are using the washroom, they avoid lunch and tea breaks to meet their personal targets. Likewise they are being exploited in an inhuman manner. They are also entitled to an attendance allowance which is between Rs.3,000-5,000. So despite having sick, casual and annual leave, they report to work. They work even if they have flu or any other illness. Sometimes supervisors come to the boarding rooms and call them to the factories and they stay in the sick room.
Q How is the support from trade unions?
We wonder if their involvement is less now, particularly because many apparel manufacturing companies are powerful ones. If there is no labour voice, we have to intervene, hold press conferences and voice for the rights of these workers. Through bargaining, these trade unions also get entangled in monetary gains. So it’s a win-win situation for them, but it doesn’t favour workers in any way.
Q What specific issues did manpower workers face at the onset of the pandemic?
Contracts of those who have been working for less than six months or one year were terminated. In turn, men went to do janitorial work and women started doing domestic work. If they work for 10-15 hours a day, they get around Rs.1,300. Usually an agent would collect their IDs and telephone numbers and come back in the evening to give their daily allowance. But this doesn’t happen in a regular manner. Some of them come the following day and these workers have to go back empty handed. They are not even entitled to EPF. Many of these workers experience domestic violence, sexual abuse and other issues which society has turned a blind eye on. The apparel industry is glorified in reports, but nobody talks about the hardships faced by female garment factory workers.