10/19/2020, 14.04
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Minuwangoda garment workers blamed for the spread of COVID-19

by Melani Manel Perera

Trade union and human rights activists speak out against this. The authorities are urged to see how employees of apparel firms, like Brandix, live. People suspected of contagion are crammed untested in quarantine centres. Activists want an independent investigation and the intervention of the Court of Appeal.

Colombo (AsiaNews) – Workers employed in the garment industry are being blamed for the spread of COVID-19 and the quarantine imposed on them is a form of punishment, trade unions said at a recent meeting held at the Centre for Society and Religion (CSR) in Colombo.

They accuse the authorities of discriminating against segments of the population in their efforts to contain the pandemic; instead, they should go and see how garment workers are forced to live this crisis situation.

According to the World Health Organisation, Sri Lanka has reported 5,475 COVID-19 cases with 13 deaths. At present, the Brandix plant in Minuwangoda, one of the largest local apparel manufacturers, is the main cluster.

More than 1,500 people connected with the plant have tested positive, including staff members, their families and relations. A group of 48 workers who arrived from India on charter flights are thought to have caused the outbreak.

Brandix claims to have followed all health regulations; however, an investigation found that public health inspectors did not supervise these workers’ quarantine process.

Meanwhile, several local humanitarian organisations have expressed concern about the way garment workers are being treated. The apparel industry is a key component of Sri Lanka's economy.

Chamila Thushari, coordinator of the Dabindu Collective, said that soldiers raided the workers’ boarding rooms, telling them they had 5-10 minutes to pack their bags and board crowded buses headed for quarantine centres.

She says that the workers were not provided with protective masks, whilst their children – even whilst breastfeeding – were separated from their mothers.

"The company is conducting an internal probe into the incident, but we are asking for an independent inquiry by the Department of Labour and the Ministry of Health,” she said.

Thushari also noted the discrepancy between Brandix top executives quarantined in five-star hotels, whilst factory workers are locked up in dusty health facilities.

Ashila Dandeniya, coordinator of the Stand Up Lanka movement, points out that the Brandix outbreak has spread to the Katunayake free trade zone.

The most serious problem in the area is testing since local workers, fearing discrimination, are hiding to avoid submitting to assessments.

Activists note that a complaint has been filed with the Human Rights Commission in Sri Lanka, asking that workers’ rights be protected. The garment industry is one of Sri Lanka’s biggest sources of revenue.

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