Labor and Capital at the Time of Covid-19

By sumanasiri liyanage

Second wave of Covid-19 has hit Sri Lanka. The number of infected at the time of writing has passed 1400. Although there is a controversy over the issue if the pandemic reaches its third phase, virus affected people were found in many parts of the island. Two university students at Jayawardene Pura and Kelaniya were found viral infected and many were placed under the quarantine. Once again, we can see the public health system has become reactivated in spite the presence of many human and physical constraints. And the security forces and the police play admirably their supplementary role. As far as the preventive measures are concerned those institutions in my opinion perform commendably in spite of the comments by some critics.

            The second wave/ third wave is different significantly from the first wave that began in February 2020. It was the tourist sector that initiated and caused the first wave and the infection transmitted through groupings related to it. The negligence and slow or negative response of the people contributed for its spread. In this sense, the first wave of Covid-19 was class neutral although affected people were belonged naturally to the lower rung of society. It is interesting to note that the differentia specifica of the present wave is that it is a reflection and expression of poor status of the capital- labor relation of the country. Hence, it would open up our eyes to the so-called incentive package offered for capital and its managers after 1977 as an essential ingredient of the development strategy.

Capital- Labor at Brandix.

It appears that the second wave of Covid-19 sprung from the Brandix Factory at Minuwangoda. And there is no doubt it is the epicenter of the new wave. Epidemiology Chief, Dr. Sudath Samaraweera, said the Brandix cluster should be managed with care, as it was more lethal than the Welisara Navy and Kandakadu clusters. The Army Commander and the Head of coordinating center, Shravendra Silva has revealed that the intelligence services have narrowed down to 10 people at the Brandix as it appeared that the first infected woman might not be the first infected person. It was reported that symptoms of COVID-19 first started appearing among workers working at the Brandix facility in Minuwangoda from 20 September, that was almost two weeks before the first infected person was identified at the Gampaha hospital at a random PCR test. Had she not been a random test case, the health authorities would not have known the active presence of Covid-19 at some part of the island.

            Now the question arises: Why did the medical practitioners at the Brandix facility in Minuwangoda fail to identify several covid-19 infected workers until the government hospital identified the first known infected case similar and common symptoms of fever, cough and sore throat were reported among Brandix workers notwithstanding? The medical center at Brandix had given only pain relief medication to a majority of employees who had complained of fever, colds and cough. Dr. Sudath Samaraweera is on record stating that “When analyzing the details of the factory workers, we noticed that there had been respiratory diseases in some factory workers since 20 September, even though the female factory worker who first tested positive, had developed symptoms on 28 September.” Was this an outcome of a mere negligence and/or lack of training and experience of medical practitioners employed by the Brandix facility at Minuwangoda? Was this the case in many factories in the Export Processing Zones in Katunayaka, Biyagama and Koggala? I am not at possession necessary details to make a definite statement. Nonetheless, it is imperative to raise this issue not only from the point of view of workers health and welfare but also from the point of view of its impact on export potential of the country. Consumers of the advanced countries may be reluctant to purchase commodities, especially garments that are originated from a country where health aspect was not adequately considered. More than hundred years ago Marx wrote: “Capital takes no account of the health and the length of the life of the worker unless society forces it to do so”. When trade unions and worker activists protest over hygienic condition, Capital’s would respond like Shylock: “my deeds upon my head! I crave the law, the penalty and forfeit of my bond”. 

Reactivating Archaic Mode of Production?

According to my good friend, Comrade Anton Marcus, a joint secretary of the Free Trade Zones and General Services Employees’ Union, these factories in the Export Processing Zones invariably over-exploit workers by imposing them longer hours of work and working in pathetic working conditions. He emphasized there has been no respect for human lives following COVID-19 cases being identified in large numbers among garment workers. Women social activist in Katunayaka FTZ, Ashila Niroshinie Dandeniya of Stand Up Movement referring to the situation informed that Brandix had not paid attention to the welfare of its workers and were concerned only of making profit. She emphasized that the government should defend workers right to form trade unions. 

            We all are aware that the primary objective of capitalist enterprises is profit. Whatever the situation, they try to convert the situation for their advantage. It has been reported economic and social inequalities have increased Covid-19 pandemic substantially. Billionaires have been able to increase their wealth significantly even converting government measures for their benefits. This is the global trend.

            It seems that the Brandix and other leading manufactures for export use this epidemiological crisis to adopt archaic work practices, like forcing workers to work longer hours. The reports say workers were asked to work even they were not medically fit. The companies also reduce their workforce during the pandemic; but they tried to get the same revenue with a down-sized work force.                 

“The Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF) has officially informed the Labor Minister that Brandix have in June this year earned USD 382.4 million as against USD 481.3 million in June 2019, USD 441.9 million in July as against USD 452 million in July 2019 and USD 416.7 million in August as against USD 472.6 million in August 2019. All of this was achieved through the high level of exploitation of half the workforce they employed in the pre-COVID-19 period, adding on to their profits, the wages and saved Employees Provident Fund/Employees Trust Fund contributions.”

The BOI companies are allowed to go on without taking the health and working condition of the workers into consideration partly because there is no room for labor representation in the factory floor. Trade unions are virtually banned. Any attempts to form a union is thwarted by the company officers using subterranean forces. The association and cooperation of capital with Covid-19 would be highly dangerous to the working people since as the evidence suggests capital is not hesitancy to reinvigorate archaic modes of production in the profit-making process. So, the government should impose strict rules and regulations to control and contain such happenings and defend the right of workers to form trade unions. If the process continues, the working people have no other option than taking over the factories and to run them by themselves in co-operative ventures. 

The writer is a retired teacher of political economy at the University of Peradeniya.