08/27/2021, 12.55
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Workers’ rights in special zones suffer as a result of COVID-19

by Melanie Manel Perera

The textile and garment sector had so far withstood the pandemic and supported the Sri Lankan economy through exports. But now unions complain that workers in free trade zones have paid a price for this and demand the government ensure greater safety.


Colombo (AsiaNews) – The third wave of COVID-19 is taking its toll on Sri Lanka’s textile and garment workers.

So far, this sector has supported the country's economy thanks to 14 free trade zones that have attracted foreign investment and contributed to exports and international trade.

Now six civil society organisations are complaining that this situation has come with major problems.

In a virtual meeting held two days ago, unions presented to the media the health risks employees face, and highlighted the deterioration of workers’ rights in a sector that employs mostly women from the country’s rural areas.

“The employees of these factories have faced serious health risks and struggled since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in Sri Lanka,” said Chamila Thushari, coordinator of the Dabindu Collective Union in Katunayake.

“It goes without saying that these are delicate and highly specialised areas where the vast majority of female workers are employed,” Thushari explained.

“We regret having to point out that during this period they have had been targeted as ‘carriers’ of the disease in the eyes of the outside world,” she added.

In a written appeal addressed to Labour Minister Nimal Siripala De Silva, the six organisations highlighted worsening working conditions.

“When the pandemic broke out, anti-COVID rules were followed, but things have changed in the third wave. Premises are not disinfected and no surgical masks or disinfectants are provided,” said Chandra Devanarayana, executive director of Revolutionary Existence for Human Development.

Workers are also discouraged from getting tested because if they are positive, staff capacity would be reduced and this would negatively impact production targets.

"When factories were closed during the first wave, no wages were paid to the workers left at home," noted Lalitha Ranjani, chief organiser of the Textile Garment and Clothing Workers Union.

“The government had established a minimum wage for the period the factories were closed that was never paid,” Ranjani added.

The six organisations are not calling for a new lockdown, given that the Sri Lankan economy is currently supported only by exports, but they have sent the government a series of recommendations to improve workers’ conditions, including more testing, required social distancing measures, and the provision of adequate quarantine facilities.

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