05/17/2021, 20.22
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Sri Lankan workers want anti-pandemic action in Free Trade Zones

by Melani Manel Perera

Workers rights groups want, among other things, vaccinations, testing, and sanitised machinery. Their demands include full compensation and full attendance bonus and other related incentives for workers forced into quarantine centres or self-isolation as a result of exposure to the coronavirus in the workplace, on their way to work, or in boarding houses.

Colombo (Asia News) – Several organisations working closely with Free Trade Zone (FTZ) and manpower workers have been monitoring the effects of the pandemic in the country’s investment zones.

As part of their action, they have recently written to the government and to factory owners and employers, presenting key demands to “address the dangerous epidemic in a proper way.”

The organisations – the Dabindu Collective-Katunayake, the Revolutionary Existence for Human Development (RED)-Katunayake, the Sramabimani Kendraya-Seeduwa, and StandUp Movement Lanka-Karunayake – wrote to Labour Minister Nimal Siripala De Silva.

Copies of their letter were also sent to the Minister of Health, Nutrition and Indigenous Medicine Pavithradevi Wanniarachchi; to State Minister for Primary Health Care, Epidemics and COVID Disease Control Dr Sudarshini Fernandopulle; to the Chairperson of the Presidential Task Force for National Deployment and Vaccination Plan for COVID-19 Lalith Weeratunga Chair; to the head of the National Operation Centre for Prevention of COVID-19 Outbreak (NOCPCO) General Shavendra Silva; to the Additional Secretary of National Labour Advisory Council (NLAC) B. Vasanthan; to the Director of the Industrial Relations (Legal) of the Board of Investments (BOI) Himali Urugodawatte; to the Joint Apparel Association Forum Sri Lanka (JAAFSL) Chairman A. Sukumaran; and to Labour Department Commissioner General B.K. Prabath Chandrakeerthi.

The aforementioned organisations note that all workers in the FTZs and the apparel supply chain – be they regular or manpower workers – need to be vaccinated against COVID-19, both in the western province and the rest of the country.

To this end, they want vaccination centres to be set up at health facilities near the different FTZs and at their points of entry in order to vaccinate all workers within a period of two weeks.

They also demand that a systematic testing programme be implemented in every factory to test workers so that those who are positive and their first contacts can be moved and isolated in quarantine centres. Workers should be informed daily of the situation of the COVID-19 pandemic in their respective factories.

Quarters must be provided in each factory or Zone exclusively for FTZ workers (including manpower workers), so that there are no delays in moving them from dormitories to quarantine centres because of any lack of space.

Factory owners need to take on greater responsibility in protecting their workers. Practical safety measures in boarding houses must be provided to those workers to whom factories are unable to provide dedicated living quarters. The places where workers from different factories co-habit must be provided with adequate facilities to maintain COVID-19 safety precautions.

Workers forced into quarantine centres or self-isolation due to exposure to COVID-19 at work, on their way to work or in their boarding houses must be given full pay for quarantine days and no reduction in attendance bonus and other related incentives. What is more, factory owners must reimburse workers of any quarantine-related expenses.

Workers in a factory or part of a factory that is closed because of high COVID-19 exposure must be paid for the full month; manpower workers who have been employed for a month must also be compensated adequately. Quarantined workers must not be subject to 'No Pay Leave'.

Workers who are considered at risk due to their conditions should not be forced to come to work during this period. This may include, for example, pregnant women, workers with diabetes and another non-communicable disease that can increase the risk of comorbidities and other serious illnesses. They should be paid in full during this period.

Workers should receive monthly relief packages worth 5,000 Sri Lankan rupees (US$ 25), starting with the unemployed and non-permanent manpower workers.

Village headmen (grama sevakas) must be given clear instructions not to limit assistance to people on voters’ lists, as workers are not included in these lists.

The authorities must ensure that all factories strictly adhere to health and safety guidelines, by regularly checking workers' temperatures, monitoring social distances between workers in workplaces and machinery layout, regularly sanitising machinery, surfaces and raw materials, as well as providing personal protective equipment to all workers and allow them to wash their hands regularly, etc.

Public Health Inspectors (PHIs), labour officials and Board of Investments (BOI) officers must regularly monitor the enforcement of systematic PCR testing, safety measures and the aforementioned remuneration plans.

Health committees should be set up in each factory with adequate employee representation. A COVID-19 Management Forum should be equally established in each area, consisting of a representative for manufacturers, workers, public health authorities, the Department of Labour (DoL), and the BOI. The forum would meet online on a daily basis to discuss and address any issue related to workers' health.

The DoL, the BOI, the Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF), workers' representatives, and organisations representing women's working in the FTZs would also meet on a weekly basis to discuss and address any problems workers raise of face during this period.

A special health hotline should also be put in place enabling workers to call for information and counselling regarding COVID-19 response measures.

Finally, the pro-workers organisations also note that brand name buyers should pay a production premium directly to workers during the lockdown and the period during which restrictions are in place.

“Without further ado, it is the responsibility of the authorities to provide the maximum possible assistance to FTZ workers, as FTZ employees are a large part of the workforce that contributes immensely to the economic strengthening of this country,” said Chamila Thushari, Chandra Devanarayana and Ashila Dandeniya, respectively the conveners of the Dabindu Collective, the Revolutionary Existence for Human Development (RED), and the StandUp Movement Lanka, speaking to AsiaNews.

In their view, “Contributing to their welfare and security is not in vain at all.”

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