A 'people's court’ to discuss workers' problems
by Melani Manel Perera

The Dabindu Collective, which is behind the initiative, seeks to protect people working in the Free Trade Zones where workers are forced to work without breaks and endure growing mental and physical problems, whilst women are discriminated, and Tamils are mistreated.

Colombo (AsiaNews) – The Dabindu (sweat drops) Collective tries to protect workers employed in the country’s Free Trade Zones (FTZ). Recently, it set up a ‘people’s court’ to discuss workers’ problems, which, on Sunday, met to discuss workplace issues.  

“On Labour Day, no one talked about worker’s problems,” said Dabindu Collective’s programme coordinator Chamila Thushari. “Rallies were a simple show of power by political parties.”

The meeting was held at Lagoon Waves, Katunayake.  Participants included journalists, lawyers and activists who focused on the problems FTZ workers encounter every day: short breaks to eat (10 minutes), mental and physical problems related to working conditions, and especially the discrimination of women.

Citing a Labour Ministry study, Thushari noted that "62 per cent of women employed suffer from anemia. Other problems include joint, chest and back pain caused by standing for long hours.”

Some workers develop migraine due to air conditioning. In addition, many pregnant women are underweight and have low blood levels which can lead to birthing problems."

Workers also face wage discrimination. Instead of getting 48,720 rupees per month (US$ 320), they earn only 13,500 rupees (US$ 90).

"It is a really sad state of affairs”, Thushari said. “Meanwhile, those in power care only about getting Sri Lanka readmitted to the preferential trade programme with the European Union.”

Under the 1935 Trade Union Regulations, workers are entitled to belong to a trade union. "But the reality is very different. Only 7 per cent of the workforce has signed up with a union because of employers' opposition."

Roshini Weerasinghe, a worker who attended the meeting, noted another aspect, namely discrimination against women. "We are not respected inside or outside the factories,” she said. “Male colleagues insult us and address us inappropriately. We suffer violence and abuse at work. Many of us will not be able to have children, because of the toxicity of chemicals.”

There is also the issue of ethnicity. "We Tamil are abused because we cannot understand Sinhala,” said for V Asha, a Tamil.