Sri Lankan FTZ workers

Sri Lankan garment workers face difficulties during and after COVID-19 curfew

Rajendra Wijesinghe

Trade union sources from Sri Lanka’s Free Trade Zones (FTZs) highlight that the employers have been continuing ill-treating the workers since the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown and curfew in the island.

Translations by Creative Content Consultants

In a discussion with Hari TV, Chamila Thushari of Dabindu Collective (Please see the bottom of this article for the video) pointed out that
some companies had not paid salaries for March and April to their workers. “Some have fired their employees. Some companies have broken the service of the employees who are near to complete a five-year term with the intention to curtail their rights to earn a gratuity after five years of continuous service. Almost all did not pay the bonus. The government provides infrastructure and tax benefits to the investors. Despite all such benefits, if industries collapse within two months, we must re-think of such livelihoods. In 2018, the Department of Census and Statistics indicated that there were 74,000 vacancies in free trade zones. It seems that the employees are not satisfied. However, the existing employees have been committed to increasing the production.” 

Chamila Thushari - Dabindu
Chamila Thushari

There are 15 FTZs all over the country including places like Katunayake, Wathupitiwala, Biyagama, Horana, Seethawaka, Koggala etc. Katunayake is considered the main FTZ of the country. At the outbreak of COVID-19, the government took a decision through the Board of Investment (BOI) to close all factories in FTZs until further notice as a measure to prevent the spread of the virus. The FTZs remained closed for nearly two months.

According to Chamila Thushari, an active member of Dabindu Collective which closely collaborates with female workers of free trade zones, the workers faced enormous difficulties due to the curfew.

Out of 275,000 workers in FTZs, the majority are females between 18 to 30 years. The garment industry is the second highest foreign exchange source of the country. It is 7% of the GDP and over 40% of exports are garments. Official figures explain that the garment export generated an income of $ 5.6 billion in 2019.

Chamila explains “These women have been migrated from remote areas. They have studied up to the Ordinary Level. Less than 5% are organized in trade unions. The majority do not understand the worker’s rights. Some women expect to go back home after obtaining gratuity and other benefits after five years of service. Some try to earn the dowry while helping the families too. Many of them face problems including security. They have to be twenty-four hours away from home because of work.”    

“Curfew was imposed on March 20th. Some managers of factories asked them not to go home expecting that the Curfew would be lifted soon. Therefore all of them did not go home on March 27th as arranged by the BOI. About 15,000 to 20,000 people stayed at small boarding houses. They did not have money either to go home or to stay here.”

The government paid Rs. 5,000 relief allowance for the people affected by the curfew. Chamila Thushari pointed out that the migrated workers had missed the opportunity to get this allowance because they were officially not the residents of the areas they temporarily resided.

“The most affected were the manpower employees, who worked for Rs. 900 to 1,200/- daily wage. Such employees work on a contract basis with manpower agencies. Their wages, time, type and places of work differ from day buy day. They do not enjoy benefits and rights compared to permanent employees.”

Now, the majority of factories in FTZs have restarted work under COVID-19 health instructions. National advisory council on labour has instructed not to slash the workforce. However, FTZ trade union leader Anton Marcus complained before media on June 2, 2020, that some employers were violating the government’s regulations on the job security of the workers in the FTZ. He urged the government to take over the companies that violate the workers’ rights.

Anton Marcus

“Employers have agreed to provide work for all employees as groups, to pay 100% salary during the work. Rs. 14,500 minimum salary or 50% of the salary should be paid during the time of the work stoppage, as agreed by the employees,” he said.

Immigrated workers around FTZs undergo complicated problems after the restart of work. Chamila Thushari pointed out, “Their boarding places are below standards. Some places have over hundred boarders. There is no space for social distancing. They use common toilets and bathrooms. They are vulnerable to COVID 19. Meanwhile, some landlords force the workers to pay boarding fees for the two months they did not occupy the places and threaten to push them out otherwise.

“Much of the garments produced in Sri Lanka are for renowned brands such as Victoria Secret, Adidas, Mark & Spencer. The government should work towards safeguarding such orders and the rights of the employees.”  

Anton Marcus mentioned that the companies have received orders via WHO and UNICEF to produce health equipment.