Decent Work – For respectable employment and a guilt-free garment industry

07 October 2020

Press statement

Decent Work – For respectable employment and a guilt-free garment industry

Today, 07 of October marks the “World Day of Decent Work”, when the status of employment is evaluated world over. In Sri Lanka too, the World Day of Decent Work demands an evaluation of the status of its employees.

We have continuously highlighted the pathetic working conditions of workers, especially in the large apparel industry in the export manufacture sector that boasts of a major contribution to the country’s foreign income. We have continuously highlighted the violations of workers’ rights that undermine “Decent Work”. 

Decent work is about right to employment, to begin with, and that employers should provide a living wage for the employee and the family, it should ensure workplace safety without discrimination and the right to association which means the employee right to organise as trade unions that should be recognised. Right to association and the right organise and join a trade union is a fundamental right ensured and protected by the Constitution as well, but is still violated.

Total denial for workers to join a trade union of their choice and recognition of trade unions in the export manufacture sector including the apparel industry leads to undermining of all conditions necessary for Decent Work. Denial of right to organise in trade unions has denied workers their right to collectively voice their grievances and therefore their right to workplace safety and a living wage.

While COVID-19 global pandemic pushed the whole export manufacturing sector into a deep crisis, it has also exposed the apparel industry as the most inhuman exploiter of employees. With the outbreak of COVID-19 virus when factories had to be closed due to the indefinite curfew imposed by the government in controlling the spread, employers used it to downsize their workforce and in the process tried to clean up the workforce of possible union activism. We as a responsible trade union, therefore, proposed to the Tripartite Taskforce appointed by the Labour Ministry that was established with the Labour Minister as the chair, to establish Health committees at every enterprise to ensure decisions taken by the Taskforce are implemented and to monitor guidelines set by health authorities and precautionary measures at factories. Sadly, the labour department has not enforced these steps and have allowed employers the discretion to act as they please.

Heavy exploitation with no respect to human lives thus came to the open, one with the apparel industry raking up almost the same value in exports with half the workforce and the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus at the Brandix Lanka factory at Minuwangoda. As Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF) has officially informed the Labour Minister, they have in June this year earned 382.4 million USD as against 481.3 in June 2019, 441.9 million USD in July as against 452.0 in July 2019 and 416.7 million USD in August as against 472.6 in August 2019. All this by heavy exploitation of half the workforce they employed in the pre-COVID-19 period, adding on to their profits the wages and EPF/ETF contributions saved.

Minuwangoda Brandix Lanka factory tragedy speaks volumes of how the workers had been used as modern-day slaves. As this is written, 832 workers out of around 1,600 had been confirmed as positive from PCR tests within 03 days. We firmly believe, if required precautionary measures were effectively in place, there would have been no possibility for half the workforce to contract the COVID-19 virus. Dr Sudath Samaraweera the Chief Epidemiologist of the country is on record saying, “When analysing the details of the factory workers, we noticed that there had been respiratory diseases in some factory workers since September 20 even though the female factory worker who first tested positive, had developed symptoms on 28 September.” Fact is, Brandix Lanka management had not taken any steps to have PCR tests done on any of those workers from September 20 till the female worker admitted to the Gampaha hospital was tested positive at the hospital on Sunday 04 October.

This total negligence of human lives may not be any different in other apparel company factories too. Apparel industry that pays no attention to Decent Work, will not have COVID-19 prevention measures in their factories, for that would restrict extreme exploitation of workers.

Meanwhile, let us stress here with utter disgust, the mainstream media including State media acted with absolute irresponsibility and with no sense of ethical journalism in insulting the affected female worker by suggesting she had been in illicit relationships. With some social media activists too joining this slander campaign, what they effectively do is destroying the apparel industry by trying to project the industry as one that employs social discards. We, therefore, wish to stress that the apparel industry employs over 80% young females, who come from mainly rural households and carry with them family responsibility. What they need therefore is not insults and slander but “Decent Work” and that is the social responsibility all media should shoulder.

In conclusion, we call upon the labour department to enforce all conditions necessary for Decent Work that would provide workers with a respectable and secure life and a reputation without guilt for the apparel and export manufacture sector.

Anton Marcus

Free Trade Zone & General Services Employees’ Union