COVID-19 demands democracy and fundamental rights ensured

By Kusal Perera

Much hyped stories about Free Trade Zone (FTZ) workers being inhumanly exploited by employers in Sri Lanka during this pandemic period, did make rounds here and travelled beyond our shores as well.

These stories are mostly on Katunayake FTZ and on apparel sector workers. Numerous alliances in Colombo and in Katunayake have emerged to voice the plight of FTZ workers, some with no actual membership base in factory floors. These stories have caught up with regional campaigns with most workers in the region facing similar hardships and threats to life amidst the pandemic.

In Sri Lanka, recent “rights campaigners” outside trade unions have in their effort to draw attention resorted to blowing up issues. Arbitrary numbers like 5,000 COVID-19 positive cases were quoted for Katunayake FTZ alone at one time. Meanwhile employers claim they have vaccinated over 74 percent of the FTZ workers with both jabs and 90 percent with the first jab. Numbers quoted on FTZs and the apparel sector have always been arbitrary, depending on who quotes them and for what purpose.

BOI-SL claims apparel sector employment is 15 per cent of Sri Lanka’s workforce with no numbers given. The “workforce” mentioned has no clear explanation. If the employed number above 15 years in both urban and rural sectors given in the “Census and Statistics Dept.” survey of 2019 is taken as the workforce, apparel sector employment would be 1.23 million. Yet the Joint Apparel Associations’ Forum (JAAF) claims 300,000 direct employment with 600,000 indirect employment. These numbers have thus been always erratic and never perfect and accurate.

Pandemic beyond Katunayake

Threat of the COVID-19 pandemic is beyond numbers and beyond Katunayake and apparels. With every district under the COVID-19 pandemic, safety of all workers in all factories under BOI-SL and outside it is seriously under threat. Even distant districts like Mannar (1,357), Kilinochchi (4,636), Mullaitivu (1,284), Kalmunai (2,782) and Batticaloa (6,155) reported considerable numbers as on 05 September (2021) in this third wave.

First shocking outbreak of COVID-19 virus among factory workers was not in Katunayake. It was in Minuwangoda Brandix factory in early October 2020 and has since travelled far beyond Katunayake. Number of factories in Panadura, Seethawaka, Bingiriya, Koggala, Thulhiriya, Hasalaka had reported COVID-19 infected employees during this third wave.

In May this year, a factory manager of Esquel Koggala factory employing 1,500 persons and owned by a high-profile apparel and textile company in Hong Kong, was ordered to be remanded for 10 days till May 31 (2021) by the Additional Magistrate Galle for violating quarantine law. Public Health Inspectors (PHI) told Court, the manager had withheld information of immediate contacts of infected workers and the factory had been in operation on shifts violating instructions provided.

While this is the first and only instance PHIs had indicted a factory manager to date for violation of health guidelines, such violations are not uncommon. There should be other factories with affected employees making impact on community life in provincial areas, outside the gaze of civil society activists.

Workers’ plight in forgotten N-E

While media lacks investigative coverage of COVID-19 pandemic issues even in Southern Sinhala areas, Colombo activists don’t seem to bother checking the Vanni and the East for COVID-19 related issues in factories. But let me observe that especially in the Vanni and in East, workforce in factories remain “atomised”, unable to develop any “inter-employee relationship” even among their own factory workers. With a protracted 25 year long war that dismantled the organised society and left the State apparatus working in tandem with security forces, labour issues go neglected and unreported.

Ability to collect labour from this war affected, shattered and atomised society was one major reason investors moved to the Vanni and the East. Donor agencies came with funded projects, on a wholly absurd logic of creating employment for the war affected, ignoring the fact fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution and also on ILO Conventions were wholly suppressed in a militarised context with civil administration partly dysfunctional.

Total pandemic picture in a gist

Few issues have to be stressed here for the total pandemic picture at workplaces to be clear and easily understood. All through one year and six months, neither employers nor the labour department was serious in containing the spread of COVID-19 and was more interested in having factories in operation. They ignored two of the decisions taken at the Labour Ministry established “Tri-partite Taskforce Committee on COVID-19 related labour issues” in May and December 2020 respectively. One was to enforce a non-working monthly minimum wage of Rs.14,500 for workers not called for work and two, to organise and operate bi-partite “Factory Health Committees” (FHC) with worker representation in all factories.

Employers in May 2020 claimed they have not received new orders and may not have new orders coming for many months, and therefore they cannot accommodate all workers. The Tri-partite Taskforce Committee took a principle decision that no employee should be laid off on COVID-19 pandemic related issues, that was endorsed by the government. On that the stakeholders compromised to pay a minimum wage of Rs.14,500 for workers not called for work, and that should be a rotational process. There were instances of default in such wage payment and deliberate mis-interpretations for the benefit of the employer.

On FHCs, while employers completely ignored the decision to establish FHCs with worker representation, labour authorities try to cover up non-compliance with the decision arguing there are “Occupational Health and Safety Committees” in all factories. They are partly defunct and are only mandated to handle emergency situations like accidents in workplaces. COVID-19 pandemic is no occupational health hazard and nor is it an emergency. Thus the necessity of having FHCs.

The other issue is, in no factory can “social distancing” be practically maintained. Obviously\, they were not designed and constructed expecting such pandemic requirements. Though health guidelines require air-conditioning to be switched off, no apparel factory can afford to have air-conditioning shut completely with textiles and fabrics in store. The other constraint is, no employer can afford separate lodgings for all their workforce for very practical reasons.

Necessity of democratic and “rights” based answers

In short, all WHO guidelines are meant for urban middleclass residents and not for workers in factories. Guidelines for factories have to be redesigned and re-spelt democratically with local worker participation, and that could have been possible with bi-partite FHCs. What employers fear and the labour authorities have given into is, FHCs could lead to organised labour in factories, where trade unions have been denied and busted all through the past 43 years, since the establishment of the first FTZ in Katunayake. Unspoken logic of the employer is, organised labour cannot be exploited as non-organised labour, for increasing of profits.

Thus, the common denominator of both the Sinhala South and the war affected Tamil-Muslim North-East employment is that basic rights of workers to organise as trade unions and bargain collectively are totally denied and suppressed. Difference being, Sinhala South is yet outside military cover, compared to North and East.

Except in the traditional plantations, this ruthless denial of “Rights” across the labour force in the private sector, despite guarantees in the Constitution under Chapter III, Article 14(1)(d) and endorsed by ILO Conventions 87 and 98 signed and ratified in 1972 and 1995 by the SL Government, has never been challenged and campaigned for by any trade union and by any civil society rights organisation. For urban civil society rights campaigners, “worker rights” have never been part of fundamental rights to stand for.

Fact remains, for all employees in North, East, West and South, unless the right to organise and bargain collectively is not brought up as an uncompromising fundamental right, their workplace safety, environment and health will never be taken care of by employers. No FHCs would be allowed and COVID-19 issues would remain and possibly aggravate. Thus, demands for health safety and COVID-19 prevention in workplaces have to be raised with the demand for trade unions and collective bargaining. Its about democratising factory life, that has not been addressed to date.

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