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Sri Lankan garment workers decry violations of labor rights

The spread of Covid-19 has given employers an opportunity to cut back on their workforce

UCA News reporter, Colombo

UCA News reporter, Colombo

Published: October 26, 2020 04:19 AM GMT

Updated: October 26, 2020 04:40 AM GMT

Sri Lankan garment workers decry violations of labor rights

A man wearing a mask as a preventative measure against Covid-19 walks past a mural in Colombo. (Photo: AFP)

Nuwangi Wickramasuriya, an apparel factory worker in Katunayake Free Trade Zone, claims that hundreds of Sri Lankan factory workers have been diagnosed with the coronavirus.

She said that although production at some garment factories in Katunayake has been halted, most factories are still in operation but public transport is not operational. As a result, there are many problems in reporting to work in factories.

"We all work within the curfew situation," said Wickramasuriya, 33, who lives with six women workers in Amandoluwa, Katunayake.

The National Operation Centre for Prevention of Covid-19 Outbreak announced a curfew in Gampaha district, which covers Katunayake Free Trade Zone, from Oct. 21-26.

"We work for a low salary because we have no other way of life. Some days we have to work even though we are sick. Even the benefits we get because of coronavirus have been slashed," said Wickramasuriya.

"There are six roommates in our small room. They all have one tube well for use and one toilet for all. We have to wait a long time for a bath." 

Trade unions say that about 80,000 workers in garment factories across Sri Lanka have already lost their jobs due to the pandemic.

According to the government, the second wave of coronavirus is spreading across the country after a worker at the Brandix garment factory who was hospitalized was found to be infected with Covid-19.

The garment industry is the country's second-largest earner of foreign currency. Young rural women factory workers face forced labor and sexual harassment.

To export earnings, the apparel sector generates US$5 billion annually in revenue. Since March, the minimum wage has been around 14,500 rupees (US$79), with no overtime pay.

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Union leaders say that nearly 10 factories in the zone have been closed. The spread of Covid-19 gave employers an opportunity to cut back on their workforce.

According to human rights activists, some apparel workers have been forcibly taken away for quarantine and they accuse authorities, including security forces, of treating workers inhumanely.

Chamila Thushari, program coordinator at Dabindu Collective in Katunayake, said 45 garment factory workers including 25 women, a pregnant woman and two children in Liyanagemulla area in Katunayake were captured by the army and taken by bus to a temporary quarantine facility center on Oct. 11.

"They were given seconds to pack their things and get on the bus. They were not even given time to pack their clothes," said Thushari.

The number of coronavirus infections in Sri Lanka had increased to 7,872 as of Oct. 26.

Thushari said the epidemic seems to have developed not only into a public health problem but also into a rights violation crisis in the free trade zones.

"With the outbreak of this epidemic, it has been observed that hateful and abusive statements based on the sex, professional and femininity of the workers continue to occur, especially in the mainstream media as well as on social media," said Thushari, who fights for the rights of apparel workers.

"The International Labor Organization recommends that employers take full responsibility for ensuring that workers take all possible steps to minimize the spread of the disease in the workplace and to protect workers from the disease."

She said that keeping workers who have not undergone PCR testing together in poor sanitary conditions and transporting them all to quarantine centers on the same bus, including those who have not been tested unsafely, poses a real risk to the workers.

"Misuse of the Covid-19 crisis to cut jobs and slash wages is a violation of the fundamental rights of workers," said Thushari.

Sisters of Charity nuns who help marginalized women factory workers said they are hard-working women. They are not beggars and they have not done anything illegal.

Sister Noel Christine Fernando said they do not get any social recognition and many of these women are depressed because of these factors.

"These women factory workers were loaded up in the night and at least the military has not informed them where they were going or why they were taking them. They have the right to know where they are going," said Sister Fernando who has established a center called Shramaabimani Kendraya (Dignity of Labor).

The nun visits the boarding houses and listens to all the problems of these women workers.

Wickramasuriya said a few factories closed down recently but had not granted any compensation to the workers.

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