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Sri Lankan garment workers seek urgent government help

Pandemic takes its toll on the lucrative garment industry as infections rise among factory workers
Sri Lankan garment workers seek urgent government help

A deserted street during government-imposed travel restrictions and a weekend lockdown to curb the spread of Covid-19 in Colombo on May 15. (Photo: AFP)

Published: May 17, 2021 06:23 AM GMT
Updated: May 17, 2021 06:38 AM GMT

Garment workers in Sri Lanka’s free trade zones have urged the government to protect their lives as the Covid-19 pandemic spreads rapidly in the zones.

Sister Noel Christine Fernando of the Sisters of Charity said the lives of the workers are in danger because of the rapid spread of the third wave of the virus.

"Four pregnant women have already lost their lives due to the coronavirus. Therefore, we urge Minister of Labor Nimal Siripala de Silva to take immediate steps to protect the lives of pregnant mothers working in the factories," said Sister Fernando, head of rights group Sramabimani Kendraya.

"Experts say the side effects are significant for pregnant women over 28 weeks and women with diabetes and high blood pressure." 

In random PCR tests carried out in a garment factory in Katuwellegama, 50 workers were found to be positive. On May 7, the factory was closed and all workers were subject to PCR tests. The results revealed that the number of workers who tested positive had risen to 300, while 150 workers continued to work as the factory reopened on May 10.

In another garment factory in Katunayake, 100 workers tested positive.

If a factory is closed due to high Covid-19 prevalence, the workers must be paid in full for the month

Dabindu Collective Sri Lanka, Revolutionary Existence for Human Development, Sramabimani Kendraya and Standup Movement Lanka have urged factory owners to reimburse any quarantine-related expenses.

"Workers who are forced into quarantine centers or self-isolation at their boarding houses must be given full pay for quarantine days and no reduction in attendance bonus and other related incentives," the rights organizations said in a May 15 letter to the minister of labor and factory owners.

"If a factory is closed due to high Covid-19 prevalence, the workers must be paid in full for the month, and any manpower workers who have been on the roster for the month must be compensated adequately.

"Workers who are in quarantine should not be subjected to ‘no pay leave'. Workers who are considered to be at risk due to their condition should not be forced to come to work during the period."

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

Saduni Thushari, 32, a garment worker, said female workers fear that if they don’t go to work, factory owners will deduct their leave.

"They are also reluctant to stay at home because their wages are cut, therefore they go to work because they are struggling to survive," she said.

"5,000-rupee monthly relief ration packs should also be distributed to unemployed manpower and non-permanent workers. They should ensure health guidelines, such as regular checking of temperature of workers and maintaining recommended distance between workers, regular sanitizing of machines, surfaces and washing hands regularly." 

A third wave of coronavirus started to spread across Sri Lanka after the Sinhala and Tamil New Year in April.

A total of 142,746 Covid-19 cases and 962 deaths have been reported in the country, which reported 21 deaths on May 16.

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