Sri Lanka urged to protect garment workers’ rights during pandemic
Sri Lankan government, factory owners and international clothing brands sourcing from Sri Lanka should protect the safety and employment rights of garment workers during the Covid-19 pandemic, said Human Rights Watch today.
The Sri Lankan government has used a strict lockdown, first imposed on May 21, 2021, and other measures, including travel bans and bans on public gatherings, to contain a new wave of Covid-19 cases . However, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa ordered the garment factories to remain open. Unions and public health inspectors have reported numerous outbreaks of the virus in factories, as well as in overcrowded boarding houses where many workers live, and have alleged employers are under-testing and under-reporting cases to keep them down. production levels.
âTextile workers in Sri Lanka have the right to work safely and to be properly paid even when they fall ill or need to be quarantined,â said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. âThe government and employers should fully implement existing agreements and guidelines, be transparent about Covid-19 infections in factories and ensure the well-being of workers instead of intimidating and silencing them.â
One in seven Sri Lankan women works in the garment sector, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO). Repeated epidemics have occurred in garment factories since April. Yet five labor rights activists from four organizations told Human Rights Watch they received complaints from workers that factory managers pressured workers to work without adequate health and safety measures in the workplace. job.
All five said many workers at different factories complained to them about their lost wages when they fell ill or needed to be quarantined. Activists said police or military personnel intimidated them to prevent them from speaking out.
Following a Covid-19 outbreak in October 2020 at a factory owned by Brandix Lanka Limited, the government made it mandatory for all factories to have a Covid-19 health committee, including management and representatives workers. By early July, according to those interviewed, most factories had not established committees.
On October 25, the Sri Lankan government issued guidelines requiring garment factories to take occupational health and safety measures for ventilation, screening, testing and isolation of infected workers. Labor rights activists have consistently expressed concerns in written statements that employers are flouting the guidelines, despite government claims that the health measures are being enforced. “Labor rights are only a piece of paper,” said one activist, adding that workers “are afraid of losing their jobs, so even when they show symptoms, they keep going to work.”
Another union activist said: “If factories know of a positive test, they do nothing about it or share the information” with health authorities. An activist who had helped workers sick with the virus said: âEmployers are busy with their orders and workers do not receive PCRs. [Covid-19] tests, because if they are positive, they will not be able to use them in production.
Many garment factories in Sri Lanka, but not all, are located in industrial zones called free zones (FTZs). Systematic data on Covid-19 cases in the clothing sector, which contributes 6% of Sri Lanka’s GDP and 44% of exports, is not available.
On May 20, a court in Galle arrested a director of the Koggala Free Zone on charges under the Quarantine and Disease Prevention Act, after the director allegedly withheld information and failed to follow up on information. instructions from public health officials following an outbreak at the plant. While these lawsuits are unusual, activists told Human Rights Watch they believe violations of quarantine rules in factories are widespread.
In April, police broke up a protest by workers outside a factory in Bingiriya, where management reportedly kept staff at work despite an outbreak. On July 8, trade unionists were arrested during a labor rights protest in Colombo and forcibly taken to a Covid-19 quarantine facility, two days after the government banned public protests on alleged grounds public health.
The quarantine facilities are run by the Sri Lankan military, which the government has placed under control in its response to the pandemic. When employees are sent to quarantine facilities, their absence is usually deducted from their annual allowance of 14 days of unpaid leave.
Following the major outbreak at a factory in Brandix in October, unions filed a complaint with the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission, alleging soldiers ’rounded up’ 98 workers amid the crisis. night and arbitrarily detained them in an unsanitary quarantine facility. In response, the military accused the plaintiffs of pursuing “hidden plans” and said the military should not be “insulted or demeaned”. Human Rights Watch wrote to Brandix for information on the October outbreak but received no response.
Many factories have hired former army officers in managerial positions, and their tendency to impose military-style discipline has “instilled fear” among workers, activists said. An activist said she was threatened earlier this year by a retired garment factory manager, a retired army officer, who called her and told her he had “dealt with terrorists âand warned againstâ raising issues â.
Labor rights activists have also reported increased surveillance and intimidation by government security agencies. One woman said military intelligence asked her organization why she spoke to international media. Another activist said members of the police criminal investigation department visited her office in April.
âIt’s very risky for anyone to talk about these things,â said one activist. âPeople are very afraid to speak,â said another.
The government has also taken formal steps to prevent the sharing of information related to the pandemic. In May, Health Secretary Major General Dr SH Munasing issued a circular barring health officials from speaking to the media because they allegedly shared “incorrect” information and “criticized health policies.”
In June, the police released a statement titled âCirculation of false information, photographs, videos causing disunity, hatred and obstructing the Covid-19 programâ. The Sri Lanka Bar Association said the credentials “could be misused by police to stifle freedom of speech and expression.”
Intimidation of workers by security forces is particularly acute in predominantly Tamil northern Sri Lanka, which has remained heavily militarized since the end of the civil war in 2009. In Maruthankerny, security officials reportedly told workers that they would lose their pay and benefits if they did. not showing up for work, despite safety fears related to the spread of Covid-19.
Most textile workers in free zones live in overcrowded boarding houses operated by private owners. Workers’ representatives said that since people with suspected or confirmed cases of Covid-19 are often not placed in isolation but returned to their boarding houses, there is a risk of transmission of the virus between workers at different factories who live in the same building. .
Many garment workers come from parts of the country other than where their factory is located, so they are not eligible for the 5,000 rupee (US $ 25) relief programs distributed by local governments to low-income workers. whose income has been affected by the pandemic.
The government and factory owners should take effective measures to isolate workers who test positive and ensure that those receiving treatment or in isolation or quarantine receive full pay, Human Rights Watch said. Relief packages should be distributed to workers no matter what part of the country they come from, and safety measures and guidelines previously agreed with workers’ representatives should be followed.
Attempts to intimidate or coerce workers and their representatives, attacks on freedom of association, including the right to join a union, and attempts to stifle freedom of expression, should be immediately withdrawn. Foreign companies that buy clothes from Sri Lanka and trading partners, including the European Union, whose SPG + trade agreement includes commitments to respect labor rights, should pressure Sri Lanka to respect its commitments.
International and local labor rights groups in many countries have launched a campaign for brands to help support workers and strengthen social protection systems by joining a wage insurance fund and a compensation guarantee fund. starting point. Brands should support such initiatives, Human Rights Watch said.
Sri Lankan clothing manufacturers have applied for loans from the International Finance Corporation (IFC), which is part of the World Bank Group. IFC must rigorously ensure that companies that receive loans meet its standards of performance in terms of labor and working conditions, and respect fundamental labor rights enshrined in ILO conventions, including freedom of employment. association and collective bargaining.
âSri Lankan textile workers don’t just provide for their families, they help keep the whole economy afloat in these very difficult times,â Ganguly said. “Their safety must be protected and their rights respected by the global garment industry which depends on their work.”