Mon, 21 Jun 2021 Today's Paper

Exploitation in garment factories; Rights groups claim 'It’s outright slavery at the FTZ'

25 May 2021 12:05 am - 13     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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  • Rights groups urge authorities to intervene
  • Rights groups claim that workers’ rights have been violated as factories continue operations further exploiting workers
  • If workers opt for the quarantine process there are no quarantine centres in the district or province
  • Workers are taken to an isolated area and deliberately returned to their hostels without a proper assessment of their health condition
  • There are infected workers in many hostels at FTZ
  • Most PHIs aren’t aware of positive cases in the area

The Asia-Pacific region has been termed the ‘clothing factory of the world’ as it accounts for 60 percent of the world’s total apparel exports according to statistics compiled by the International Labour Organisation (ILO). The garment sector in Sri Lanka is an important source of income and employment which contributes six percent to Sri Lanka’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). With the onset of COVID-19 pandemic, apparel manufacturers estimated a loss of USD 1.5 billion, but amidst drastic conditions, apparel industry workers were expected to work. The emergence of the Minuwangoda COVID cluster is one such example. Recently, as many as 400 garment factory workers tested positive at a garment factory in Thulhiriya, prompting authorities to launch a probe. However, rights groups claim that workers’ rights have been violated as factories continue operations further exploiting workers.


No relief, only 
hard work 


Speaking at a press conference organised by Asia Floor Wage Alliance – an international campaign and alliance for collective industrial bargaining in the global garment industry, Chamila Thushari representing Dabindu Collective opined that responsible authorities haven’t taken the first and second COVID waves as examples to contain the third wave. “No PCR tests are being conducted in garment factories in Katunayaka, Biyagama, Thulhiriya, Kilinochchi and Vavuniya where 200-300 positive cases have been found. If 100 PCRs are done, around 20-30 workers always test positive. The authorities aren’t conducting PCR tests adequately. Workers who test positive are being kept for 5-6 days at hostels and then taken to Jaffna and faraway places for quarantining. After 2-3 days they are brought back to the hostels without treatment. They don’t have a way to find out the result of their PCR tests. The companies are deliberately hiding this information. It’s the apparel sector that’s contributing to the economy at this point and according to Central Bank reports the apparel sector has gained profits despite this crisis.” said Thushari. 


This is a crisis situation. If one worker tests positive she’s likely to infect 20-50 others in the same hostel. They have to use a common toilet. There aren’t many trade unions to voice for the rights of garment factory workers. Right now workers don’t have any sort of relief. All task forces cover up company owners

Chamila Thushari representing Dabindu Collective

 



“During the first and second waves of the pandemic many garment workers lost their jobs. Out of around 500,000 workers only 200,000 remained and are contributing to the economy. So why aren’t these workers being tested? We urge the Government to administer vaccines and conduct PCR tests because many factory workers are women who are under 30. There are no health guidelines in place. This is a crisis situation. If one worker tests positive she’s likely to infect 20-50 others in the same hostel. They have to use a common toilet. There aren’t many trade unions to voice for the rights of garment factory workers. Right now workers don’t have any sort of relief. All task forces cover up company owners. Who’s going to intervene? We urged authorities to grant them paid leave, but if they are quarantined their allowances and salaries are being deducted. Manpower workers on the other hand don’t have any opportunity of getting PCR tests done. Pregnant mothers too are unsafe in this environment,” she opined.


Outright slavery


“It’s outright slavery at the FTZ,” claimed Ashila Dandeniya of Standup Movement Lanka, an organisation striving to promote rights and entitlements of workers in Economic Processing Zones (EPZs). “Their safety is not accounted for. We observe that PCR tests are being done so that the results won’t hinder the daily outcome of apparel productions at these factories. Sending workers to quarantine is also happening in an ad hoc manner. Previously if one person tested positive, her close contacts too were sent for quarantine. But now it’s only the positive case that’s sent for quarantining. Others are expected to work. So how safe are they? Where is the Labour Ministry? We don’t even feel that there’s such a Ministry with the silence they have maintained. Many other authorities are trying to mislead us with false information. If we take the quarantine process there are no quarantine centres in the district or province. They are taken to an isolated area and deliberately returned to their hostels without a proper assessment of their health condition. Some are left on the road. This is an inhumane operation by the tri-forces. Close to 50% of garment factory workers are victimised as a result of the pandemic. We urge the authorities to grant them leave for a period of two weeks, but this shouldn’t affect their allowances. Why are responsible authorities silent? They should arrive at a decision. Health authorities have warned that we are in a critical situation. We suspect whether workers at FTZ would have to work even if the country goes into a lockdown. The Government should provide relief to these workers and if not the relevant companies should intervene and ensure their wellbeing” said Dandeniya.


Vaccine inequality 


“The FTZ has become a free COVID distribution Centre,” opined Chandra Devanarayana of Revolutionary Existence for Human Development (RED) – a non-profit organisation dedicated to empower women and women workers in free trade zones of Sri Lanka. “There are infected workers in many hostels at FTZ. None of the companies or authorities has taken steps to isolate them. Some have quarantined themselves inside boarding rooms for 14 days. They aren’t unable to come out of their hostels and they are being stigmatised. They are unable to use the toilets or cook. Some companies don’t even provide them with food. Many factories in Thulhiriya, Pudukudirippu, Biyagama have been closed down. But officials say that production has to proceed. But even to do so these workers should live first. Pregnant mothers are supposed to work from home, but is it only the pregnant mothers in public service who should take care of themselves? We request that pregnant mothers employed in the private sector too should be granted paid leave. People in Katunayake are being given the vaccine, but priority should be given to garment factory workers. However only few workers have been given the vaccine. If they aren’t given the vaccine who’s going to be responsible for their lives? Most PHIs aren’t aware of positive cases in the area as well,” she added.


No complaints received 


Several organisations voicing for the rights of garment factory workers sent a list of demands to various authorities including the Labour Ministry, Labour Department (BOI) and the Board of Investments on May 15. However when inquired Labour Department Commissioner General Prabath Chandrakeerthi said that he hasn’t received any complaints regarding apparel workers in free trade zones. “Free Trade Zones come under the purview of the BOI and they should be coordinating vaccines, PCR tests etc. However if there’s a violation of Labour rights such as if workers in lockdown areas are being called to work or if a worker is expected to work even if they are in poor health conditions, then we would intervene. But so far we haven’t received any complaints as such.” 


National responsibility to continue operations 


A document including revised health guidelines for garment factory workers, updated as at April 2021, has been uploaded to www.investsrilanka.com, a website managed by BOI. The guidelines however are clear on what needs to be done if a worker tests positive. It states that first line contacts should be isolated and sent for quarantine.
 In an earlier instance BOI Chairman Sanjaya Mohottala has urged all apparel factories to comply with health guidelines while stressing the need to continue the manufacturing process describing it as a national responsibility. He has further stated that factories have been instructed to act as a Bio-security Bubble to contain the spread of the pandemic. 


Several attempts to contact Labour Minister Nimal Siripala De Silva proved futile.  

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  Comments - 13

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  • priyan66 Tuesday, 25 May 2021 11:01 AM

    These peoples are trying to close balance garment factories too, which we have to borrow forex from Somalia soon. Shame on you

    Kumar Sandy Tuesday, 25 May 2021 09:31 PM

    Therefore slave Labour and employment of underage children like in the Victorian times should be bought back for the benefit of a few Businesses owned by a handful of Billionaires.

    das Tuesday, 25 May 2021 04:45 PM

    The private sector is essentially slavery and exploitation to at least some degree. And that's the truth

    SL Tuesday, 25 May 2021 06:35 PM

    Garment factory owners earlier asked gvt to let them to secure Covid Vaccines for their employees.Gvt did not allowed it. Garment sector is doing a commendable job at the moment through out this 1.5years of chaotic situation . It just not bring money to owners, it feeds factory works and secure their job . Those who are undermining the effort are shameless RS 5000 seekers !!

    Harry Wednesday, 26 May 2021 11:55 AM

    Garment sector employees get better care for COVID from employers compared to other govt and private sector workers. All the people who express their biased views here are NGO employees and not the actual people who work in apparel.

    SEYED SHERALI Wednesday, 26 May 2021 12:31 PM

    It is important to design a system with inbuilt regulations for the conduct of all factories and uphold the rights of all. In Sri Lanka women are not treated with dignity; examples being the plight of migrant housemaids and the garment factory workers at the free trade zone areas. Is there any humanity left in our country?

    rational Wednesday, 26 May 2021 12:39 PM

    @SL. So if the vaccines were not made available, it's all right to put employees' lives in danger by forcing them to work? You are a shameless inhuman slave driver.

    Sena Pera Thursday, 27 May 2021 07:23 AM

    When TATA of India says they will pay salaries of employees who died of COVID 19 untill retirement , what a pathetic response from our business people. Remember how Brandix rushed and cut people's salaries within 3 weeks of the Pandemic this are the heartless acts of our wealthy business men !

    Sam Thursday, 27 May 2021 04:37 PM

    Chamila Thushari doesn’t even look at revised health ministry guide on apparel manufacturing with respect to prevention of COVID 19 at work place

    GGT Friday, 28 May 2021 12:03 AM

    Whether testing PCR or giving the vaccine is not really termed exploitation, but abusing those girls sexually should be considered a grave ABUSE.

    Garment Fac Manager Friday, 28 May 2021 01:53 PM

    These workers are looked after. the only thing they know is to do these jobs. They are not trained for anything else. You close down the factory - which is what will happen if the staff dont turn up to work and make the items in time - and they will all end as penniless vegetable sellers on the road. Majority of the workers receive all three meals and good facilities. Activists have big mouths and empty purses.. are you going to take care of these families?

    Nathalie J Friday, 28 May 2021 01:54 PM

    These activists have grand ideas but no money to support even one factory worker - who represents a family of at least 4 more people. Stop jeopardising their jobs to meet your own sinister agendas

    Hawky Sunday, 30 May 2021 11:01 AM

    How can employees make a complaint to Authorities. Its at the expense of their job. Most of the workers are bread winners for their family. Its the duty of the Authorities to check on the unfair labour exploitation


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