Vaccine Inequality and Cost to Garment Workers – Perspectives
Photo courtesy of The Star
Sri Lanka’s first admired coordinated response to the COVID-19 pandemic is now a distant memory. The second wave that has multiplied from the Brandix factory in Minuwangoda should have sounded a warning to the militarized COVID-19 task force. However, they did not take occupational health issues seriously. The consequences are tragically unfolding as we write.
We want to focus on Sri Lankan clothing, often seen as the poster child in the global clothing industry, given unconfirmed reports of escalating COVID cases in free zones. -exchange (FTZ) and our previous writings and research on the subject. Is the spread of COVID-19 concentrated in free zone zones or is it a community transmission at the national level which is particularly accentuated in densely populated communities, of which the Katunayake free zone is a part? If so, what can explain this result?
The vision and agility of Sri Lankan clothing is marked by the deft manner in which most of the industry has turned to the manufacture of personal protective equipment (PPE). MAS Holdings and Brandix, for example, have self-declared or have embarked on PPE. An ILO research note (2020: 8) tracing the effects of COVID-19 on the supply chain for the period January-June 2020 indicates how Sri Lanka was placed only second after China in the exports of face masks. While this is admirable on the part of Sri Lankan clothing, why are the garment workers struggling?
COVID-19 in Sri Lanka is no longer pockets of clusters; it is a mistake. Current data from the epidemiological unit of the Ministry of Health indicates that the virus has spread in the community, with community transmission evident in the most densely populated areas of the country. Given community transmission, a growing number of reports of apparel workers testing positive for COVID-19 are not surprising, although it is not known whether these reported cases are symptomatic or asymptomatic.
In our search for possible answers, several interrelated factors are at play. According to an industry official and an ILO official, the Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF) has protected workers’ health by taking an occupational health perspective. This was established through a series of on-site PCR tests, in accordance with protocols established by the Ministry of Health. Additionally, the JAAF reported that, through tripartite agreements, it created bipartite factory health committees, with an industry official reporting:
“From October 1, 2020 to 24e By February 2021, the BOI companies (including non-clothing) had performed, at their expense, just under 200,000 PCR tests. It would have cost companies over LKR 1.5 billion. The average rate of positive results for these tests was approximately 3.5%, which was lower than the general average in the community (5 +%). This would suggest that the mechanisms put in place by the BOI factories were in fact helping the overall situation, not otherwise. It is clear, however, that this type of cost is not sustainable and that a new strategy is needed. “
The Sri Lankan government and its COVID-19 task force have failed to come up with a sustainable strategy which, as Tisaranee Gunasekera writes, is due to government neglect, corruption and racketeering and inability to consider and prioritize public health infrastructure during this global time. public health crisis. Adding to this powerful mix is ââthe global inequality of vaccines, which, as Jeremy Harrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, said, âWe should share vaccines today, tomorrow and yesterday“. This combined global and national Sri Lankan contempt is now affecting workers in the garment sector. As Prasad Welikumbara said, workers are “the backbone of our economy.” If they get sick, our economy will not move anywhere. The government needs to stop focusing on corporate profits and start focusing on protecting its citizens. “
We know from the preliminary data we have collected that their unregulated pensions located in densely populated neighborhoods adjacent to free zones are ideal for the rapid spread of the coronavirus. This is problematic because infected workers are advised to quarantine in their homes. Although some factories operate youth hostels, most of the workers live in accommodation managed by residents and other private landlords in Katunayake and the surrounding area. Over time, the areas became even denser, with many owners now constructing multi-story buildings. Conditions are cramped and workers often share rooms with two to five people (if not more) per room. Many do not have separate cooking facilities, so workers cook in their rooms using portable stoves. The number of toilets and bathrooms is limited. In the post-war period, there are now more couples, single mothers, children and the elderly caring for children living in boarding houses. While boarding school life can provide rich friendships and support, conditions are not conducive to quarantine.
In addition, according to a global study, the level of government support for its workers, including workers in the garment sector, was low and negligible. This insignificant support compounded the hardships workers faced during the initial phases of the lockdown in April-May 2020. They had to live on erratic wages, without work, or with wages well below the living wage. Therefore, it is not surprising that activists we spoke to commented on how workers were likely to feign good health and underreport mild symptoms for fear of the ups and downs in their wages. Those in good health would go to work with the fear of infection, but felt they had no other choice.
Add to this mix the irregular availability of COVID-19 vaccines in the south of the world, including Sri Lanka. The result is that workers cannot access vaccines more easily, vaccines offered only to small sections of the workforce or vaccines given during working hours, as campaigners report. âVaccinations were carried out for the villages of Seeduwaâ¦ last week. As the workers report to work, they are not able to go to be vaccinated in the drop-in centers â.
Few, if any, factories are making alternative arrangements, with varying reports on the practices of different factories: “Maliban Textiles washing plant reportedly vaccinated all of their workers” and “Katunayaka Free Zone factories are taking action. 30 workers from each factory per day for vaccination. centers â.
However, this uncoordinated approach is in part due to the lack of cooperation from the government and the COVID-19 task force to work with the JAAF to facilitate a large-scale vaccination strategy. The JAAF wrote a letter in February to work with the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce to ââ¦ fund the cost of immunizing 500,000 people in the private sector, plus on anâ one-to-one âbasis, an additional 500,000 citizens chosen by the government . This was followed by a number of requests for the government to procure the vaccines for industry, especially ahead of the local New Year’s holidays, as the industry predicted that there would be an increase in cases if citizens did not were not vaccinated. The industry’s commitment to pay for the immunizations of its employees is still relevant today and these conversations continue today â.
Although not officially declared as an essential service, free zones and important export sectors such as clothing are permitted and required to operate during curfews and lockdown periods because they were deemed to be essential to the economy. Yet the lack of a coordinated vaccination program to protect workers in the garment sector puts both workers and the sector on which the national economy relies at risk.
Lack of decent wages and poor housing conditions, as well as global vaccine inequality leading to black markets due to vaccine shortages, are coming back to haunt the global garment industry as it strives to evidence women’s empowerment, ethics and ethical business practices. Nonetheless, it is particularly unable to live up to its end of the bargain by urging its northern governments to be ethical unless there is equitable global distribution of vaccines. It is also the responsibility of global retailers to lobby their governments, as much as the Sri Lankan government, with or without its ineffective COVID-19 task force, to prioritize the vaccination of the working classes.
Kanchana N. Ruwanpura is Professor of Human Geography, University of Gothenburg, Sweden (@ knr21_cam @GothenburgGeog)
Samanthi Gunawardana is Senior Lecturer in Gender and Development, Monash University, Australia (@SamanthiGun)
Buddhima Padmasiri is a PhD candidate in Politics and International Relations, Monash University, Australia