Sri Lanka – the current plight of factory workers affected by COVID-19

11th February, 2021   

FTZ and Manpower workers – Situation Update 3

Lalan Rubber (Pvt.) Ltd., Biyagama

Worker’s annual leave has been docked this year, with workers having to work every day between Christmas and the New Year, including on Christmas day. The four Catholic workers have been given leave on Christmas day, whilst the rest of the Tamil, Muslim and Buddhist workers have had to work on the day. Workers have also said that usually by this time of the year, the Factory would have put up a notice on annual increments, but, nothing has been posted to date (as at 24th Dec.) They have also not been notified of an increase in annual leave. On the 1st of January, the Factory will be giving alms to three Buddhist monks, but, workers are expected to report to work at 10am. 

United Tobacco Processing (Pvt.) Ltd. (UTP), Katunayake

They have given their workers leave for both Christmas and the New Year, and facilitated necessary documentation from the PHI for those who want to return home for the holidays. However, workers have got to know that once they go to their respective villages, they will be subject to mandatory quarantine. Further, the management has informed workers that if they’re quarantined for more than 10 days in their respective villages, that they will dock 50% of their month’s wages. Due to this reason, most workers have not returned home for the holidays, and have remained at their hostels/accommodation. 

There have also been malpractices in relation to workers’ annual increments, for instance, workers who’ve been employed for less than 5 years have only got an increment of Rs. 1950. As a result, workers who have been employed for almost 5 years are currently on strike in protest of the injustice that they’re being subject to. Factory owners have said that they will look into this issue and propose a reasonable solution to the problem.  

Chiefway Lanka (Pvt) Ltd., Katunayake

In early December, workers from this factory protested that they hadn’t got their annual bonus, and calling for the removal of 4 management officials who the workers claimed they couldn’t work with. In an altercation, one Management official was injured and 6 workers were suspended over this incident. The factory has now been shut down, and as workers can’t return to their homes, they are currently at their hostels/boarding places without work or wages. Workers fear that as the factory was initially set up for 5 years, which comes to an end soon, that the factory will not reopen. 

NEXT Manufacturing (Pvt.) Ltd., Katunayake

On the 21st of December, NEXT factory workers staged a protest demanding that they be paid their annual bonus. They continued their protest even though factory owners had allegedly sent thugs to disperse the protest. After talks with the factory management on the 22nd, they had agreed to provide workers with 50% of their annual bonus. On the 23rd of December, workers employed at the NEXT factory had been sent back to their homes in transport provided by the factory, but, they have not been subject to PCR tests prior to their departure.

At a meeting held at the Labour Department on the 8th of January, NEXT had agreed to pay the remaining 50% of worker’s annual bonus on the 15th of February. 

They have not paid workers OT, attendance bonuses, annual increments, there is a lack of transparency by the human resource division, workers are not permitted to unionise, large cuts in wages, bonuses and vacation leave due to workers being subject to mandatory quarantine, workers having to bear the additional cost for transport, and workers being unable to visit their homes due to being subject to mandatory quarantine and PCR tests. 

ATG Gloves Knitting (Pvt.) Ltd., Wathupitiwala  

As a result of many workers being retrenched due to the pandemic, the remaining workers are being overworked. 

Shore to Shore (Pvt.) Ltd., Katunayake

The management has moved their machines to Expolanka Holdings PLC, and have told their workers that the factory will resume operations in three months. Workers have heard that the factory is going to be permanently shut down. 

Elegance Manufacturing & Trading International, Seeduwa

Only some workers have work, whilst the rest are to be terminated. All parties had met at the Labour Department on the 1st of Feb. 2021, to reach a settlement, but it hasn’t looked hopeful for the workers to be terminated. 

Brandix Apparel Ltd., Katunayake 

They have found COVID-19 positive cases at the Katunayake factory. Workers have been given their annual bonus equivalent to their monthly wage, and worker’s monthly wages have been increased by Rs. 1750. Workers have also demanded that when one worker in their hostel is tested positive, for officials not to lockdown the entire hostel for 14 days, and only quarantine the positive worker, as workers have been subject to pay cuts by factory owners for days that they have been in mandatory quarantine. 

The Brandix Seeduwa factory has been shut down indefinitely.

Sky Sport Intl (Pvt) Ltd, Katunayake

The factory has recalled their workers who were home without work due to the outbreak of COVID-19. However, none of them have been provided with transport facilities to and from the workplace. As a results, workers who live a bit of distance from the factory, were unable to travel to work. Workers are afraid that their inability to attend work due to a lack of transport, will result in them losing their jobs. 

Eden Fresh Pro-Pac (Pvt) Ltd, Biyagama

During the first lockdown in March-May this year, this factory asked about 10 staff to not report to work, with pay, till further notice. Subsequently however, workers were paid their basic wages for March and April, half month pay for May and June and quarter month’s pay for the months of July through September and full month’s pay in October. These payments were followed by a termination of service notice being sent via post to 3 of the worker’s villages. The workers had been employed at the factory for 2, 3 and 5 years respectively.  

Whilst some workers had been given compensation for their years of service, prior to being terminated. One of the three workers were reinstated for a lower wage. The two other workers have lodged complaints at the Labour Department seeking a fair resolution to their grievance, by way of either being reinstated at their jobs, along with the payment of all outstanding wages and benefits, or to be compensated proportionately for their years of service. 

Hirdaramani Knit, Vavuniya

Tamil garment factory workers from the Hirdaramani factory in Vavuniya have complained that they have had to work through Deepawali, Christmas and Poya holidays. Dabindu Collective Sri Lanka had called the Labour Department regarding this issue and they had said they’d look into it but, had also said that as workers had been paid, it might be difficult to ask the factory for a holiday. This is even though workers have been working non-stop since April 27.

Workers have been told that their bonuses will be cut it they don’t come to work on Deepawali. Workers, including many single mothers, look forward to spending the holidays with their children/families and visit the Kovil to celebrate Deepavali.

Certain production lines have also been working till 1-1.30am over the course of October to meet a deadlines. Workers having to work late have caused family problems leading to spouses of some workers lodging complaints with the Vavuniya Police. Also many single mothers only return home aft their children are asleep, denying them any time with their children.

Hirdaramani Garments, Katunayake

The factory was shut down for almost the entirety of last year (2020), and only re-started operations over the last week of December 2020, with only 300 workers. 

Omega Line Vavuniya Apparels, Vavuniya 

Women workers have been told not to have children at least 3-6 months after they get married, and to also use contraception and inform HR of what types of contraception they will be using. They have been told that they can carry out such family planning methods via the factory HR division. 

Recently, the factory has increased their daily production target from 100,000 to 140,000, workers are permitted to drink water only during lunch and tea breaks and workers have got a Rs. 1000 increase in wages due to having to meet the new production target. 

Workers have also not been paid Over Time (OT), payment slips given only in English, in case of a mistake, workers are dismissed without being issued a warning first, workers have to work whilst standing, management has called worker’s parents to work even to report a little mistake. 

Crystal Martin Garments, Katunayake 

Workers have yet not received their annual bonuses. Having carried out PCR tests on some of their workers, they found some to be COVID positive. The rest of the workers are continuing work as usual, whilst all workers have not been tested as yet. 

Plastipak Group, Seeduwa

As an employee from the Human Resources Department was tested positive for COVID, all workers showing symptoms of coughs and colds, were made to stay home temporarily. They were told not to report back to work until further notice. However, no PCR tests have been carried out at the factory to date. Workers have also not received their wages for December. When workers had asked for their wages, they had been told to hand over a copy of their Bank Book but, not to come to the Human Resource Department. This resulted in workers not being paid their wages in December, and not being able to pay their hostel rent, afford their day to day expenses such as food and drink, and therefore had to ask for funds to be sent to them from their homes. They were also unable to return to their villages, as PCR tests were not carried out on them. Many workers had not been home since the Parliamentary elections last August.

MAS KREEDA Vaanavil Division, Kilinochchi

Two employees from the Human Resource division, a driver and 3 workers who had closely associated with them, have tested positive at this factory. When other workers had found and wanted to go home, the Police and PHIs had come to the factory and said not to panic and to continue working, and the local factory management had told the workers that if they stay home, they would run the risk of being terminated. The factory management has now started carrying out 400 PCR tests a day for their 3000 workers. Workers have been asked to go directly home and not travel around anywhere. 

Factories such as Noratel International, Star Garments and Okaya Lanka (Pvt) Ltd., have yet not received their annual bonuses.

Smart Shirts (Lanka) Ltd. have not given workers the April New Year and annual bonuses. 

In factories such as Dial Textile Industries, workers who had not received proper communication regarding not attending work due to the outbreak of COVID-19, have not received their wages this month.

General Grievances of Permanent Workers

Due to workers being taken to reside in hostels sponsored by their respective factory owners, workers living with families and single mothers have had to leave their families at the hostel and live at the factory allocated hostel indefinitely. Hostel owners who depend on worker’s rent, too, are facing many hardships due to the loss of income.  

Instead of receiving bonuses, many workers have been given their festival advances deducted over the course of 5 months. Worker’s April bonuses have also been cut.

Of the pregnant mothers who had been temporarily stopped from work, only some have been recalled. Others have not been called back in to work. 

Some of the most pressing issues faced by FTZ workers due to ongoing pandemic are as follows;

Lack of income 

Not being paid wages 

Non receipt of annual bonus 

That workers must bear the cost of PCR tests if they want to visit their homes. 

Many workers have been unable to visit their homes, due to being in 14 day mandatory quarantine at their hostels. This is particularly unfortunate for workers from the North and East who are only able to visit their families once a year. Now they have been unable to do even that. Further, workers who are widows and single mothers for instance, visit home at the end of the year with books for their children and expecting to spend at least 1-2 weeks with their families. Now they have been deprived of that as well. 

Around the second week of December, a factory working inside the FTZ, whose workers had been subject to a mandatory 14 days quarantine following the outbreak of COVID-19 in the Zone, has cut these days from their annual leave, and taken any additional days as ‘no pay leave’, leaving the workers with barely any wages left at the end of the month. Workers have appealed that legal or other action be taken against such actions by factory owners, as the workers shouldn’t have to bear the brunt of Corona related consequences, as the pandemic is not due to any fault of theirs. 

Some factories have told workers not to live in shared accommodation and to ensure that they have a toilet to themselves, and send photographs of their private toilet with their names on it, and padlock put, to Human Resources, in order to continue working at the factory. The factories also expect the workers to pay for this type of private accommodation. Workers are unable to pay for such facilities, so they have to resort to sending images of the same toilet with only their name boards switched, which defeats the purpose of minimizing the spread. Factories must either pay for private accommodation for the workers, or move them to a separate accommodation that also have provisions for families and children. 

Some workers have got wounds in their throats from the number of PCR tests they’ve had to undergo. 

Mandatory quarantine related issues

Due to 17 workers at a hostel in Awariwatte being tested positive for COVID-19 in November, around 45 other workers residing at the hostel were subject to mandatory quarantine for the fourth consecutive time, as each time workers were quarantined and returned, a new batch of workers would test positive. Workers had complained that they didn’t even have basic requirements such as dry rations, sugar, tea or soap. Therefore, organisations provided relief rations to these workers, even though the Government had promised to provide all workers with Rs. 5000/Rs. 10,000 ration packs. Many who had received such packs from their local Government authorities found that the pack didn’t even amount to Rs. 1000. In another instance, large relief packs sent to a military run Government quarantine centre, by a non-government organisation were considerably smaller when they reached the workers in quarantine. Many items in the original pack were missing. 

Similarly, 19 workers were tested positive at another hostel in Awariwatte mid-November where 36 other workers were placed in mandatory quarantine. The police had provided these workers with some rations at the start of the month. However, now the workers, Police and PHI officers have requested organisations to provide rations to workers if possible, as they have run out of food. 

Many factory owners didn’t look into the welfare of their workers under mandatory quarantine in their hostels, or subject to movement restrictions due to the outbreak.

Grievances faced by Manpower workers 

At a meeting held mid-November at the Department of Labour, the Commissioner General of the Department and officials from the BOI, requested organisations working with workers to provide them with details of Manpower workers who’ve worked with a specific factory for at least 3 consecutive months, so that they can provide them with Rs. 5000 allowance given to daily wage workers who have been out of work. This is an indication that the Government requires the support of organisations working in the Zone too. However, there has been no move for the two parties to work alongside each other. 

Many Manpower workers working within the FTZ have been told by hostel owners to vacate hostel premises, as Manpower workers at multiple factories and that therefore the risk of contracting the virus is higher. Owners have told Manpower workers to either find permanent work, or vacate the premises. One manpower worker has said that as she couldn’t find permanent work within the Zone, she had decided to return to her home, but, had then been informed that she was unable to return to her village as she was considered to be coming from a high risk area. At this she says that rather than leave the hostel, she might as well commit suicide. She had wanted to lodge a complaint at the Awariwatte police regarding her situation. 

Tasma International (Pvt.) Ltd., Biyagama

Tasma is a large Manpower recruitment agency that provides workers in and outside of the FTZ. Workers must go and stand outside the Agency from 5.30am each day in anticipation of work. Often workers wait until about 10.30am and return to their hostels without work. Many Tamil workers have not found work yet, and as they return to their Boardings with no cash in hand, they often go hungry for the entire day. There seems to be a disproportionate number of workers that are turned away without work, who are Tamil. This brings into question if there seems to be a racist element to the priority of recruitment. 

In a Boarding in Wekanda, Katunayake, Tamil women workers have said that they don’t have water during the day time. Boarding owners have said that it is because the hostel is located on a hill like area. However, other hostels in the same area, don’t face water issues, so workers suspect that the boarding owners are limiting their water supply during the daytime. Further, they don’t have electricity also on many days when they return home without work, so it adds to their plight.  

There are even many incidents where Sinhala male workers, promise marriage to Tamil women workers, get their jewellery etc., and then abandon them without marrying them. There have been many cases like this in and around the Biyagama FTZ.

Compiled by;

  • Dabindu Collective, Katunayake
  • Revolutionary Existence for Human Development (RED), Katunayake
  • Shramabhimani Kendraya, Seeduwa
  • Standup Movement Lanka, Seeduwa