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Sri Lankan garment workers demand movement to protect rights

Clothing factory workers hard hit as the economy reels from the Covid-19 crisis

Sri Lankan garment workers demand movement to protect rights

A report on the social and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic on free trade zone workers in Sri Lanka was launched on Dec. 17. (Photo: Melani Manel).

Published: December 21, 2020 06:08 AM GMT

Updated: December 21, 2020 06:19 AM GMT

Niranjalee Sudhammika, a Sri Lankan garment factory worker, lost her job in April and has not received any compensation from the factory or the government.

She was hired by a manpower agency and received her wages at the end of the month through the agency after commission was deducted.

The owner of her boarding house in Minuwangoda warned her that if she returned to work in a garment factory, she would not be allowed to stay in the accommodation as hundreds of clothing factory workers had contracted the coronavirus at their workplace.

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According to officials, a second wave of coronavirus spread across the country after a worker at a garment factory in Minuwangoda was infected with Covid-19. Some 3,663 apparel workers were infected, of which 3,539 have recovered.

The garment industry is Sri Lanka's second-largest earner of foreign currency, generating US$5 billion annually. Since March, the minimum wage has been around 14,500-17,000 rupees ($80), with no overtime pay in many factories.

Chandra Devanarayana, a prominent women's rights activist and founder of the Revolutionary Existence for Human Development organization, said the number of manpower workers in apparel factories who have lost their jobs is close to 11,000.

Three manpower companies in Katunayake and two in Biyagama have been completely closed.

"About 1,800 people have lost their jobs in the Katunayake zone and about 975 people have lost their jobs in the Biyagama zone," said Devanarayana.

"The trade unions are affiliated with political parties and cannot be trusted to do justice," said Devanarayana, adding that it is the responsibility of all civil society organizations to build a national movement for apparel factory workers as soon as possible.

Activists conducted research on the social and economic effects of the pandemic on free trade zone (FTZ) workers and made several recommendations.

"Existing labor laws are not implemented and the garment factories do not provide proper health care for the workers," said the report, which was presented on Dec. 17.

The report highlighted inactive trade unions and civil society organizations in FTZs and the lack of interaction between government agencies, civil society organizations and trade unions.

The report suggested forming a new committee under the Ministry of Labor and the appointment of a separate officer for FTZ workers under the respective zonal offices.

Researchers recommended the establishment of a fully fledged health unit of each under the Ministry of Health as well as a separate fund for employee safety and provision of residential facilities.

A total of 37,261 Covid-19 cases and 176 deaths have been reported in Sri Lanka. Some 28,267 patients have fully recovered and been discharged from hospitals.

Sister Noel Christine Fernando and three other activists filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission on the unsafe quarantine process of FTZ workers in October.

"Provide 10,000 rupees for FTZ workers who have lost their jobs due to Covid-19," said Sister Fernando.

The Liberation Movement urged the government and companies operating within FTZs to contribute to the common emergency account opened by the government and to ensure payment of a living wage to manpower workers until this crisis is over.


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