Freedom of expression and fundamental rights

The Rights of Trade Zone Employee under the Covid Pandemic

Indunil Usgoda Arachchi

While the Covid-19 pandemic poses a threat to people all over the world, Sri Lanka’s Free Trade Zone workers were severely affected. From the very beginning of the outbreak in the country, they faced job losses, loss of wages, loss of food and other basic necessities and others. The owners of the factories where they worked or the big brands that bought their apparel did little to intervene. Instead, many industrialists sought to make up for the loss of profits made during the pandemic through job cuts, wage cuts and allowance cuts.

The apparel industry, which launched in 1977 with the establishment of an open economy, is today a leading manufacturer of garments for globally renowned brands. The apparel sector was the largest exporter of goods to Sri Lanka, bringing in annual revenue of around Rs. 5 billion. At present, there are about 300-350 garment manufacturing companies in the country, which provide around 300,000 direct employment opportunities and another 600,000 indirect employment opportunities, according to the January 2020 Report of the Sri Lanka Export Development Board. The majority of those employed are women. After the end of the country’s 30-year war, 10 garment factories were set up in the North and East with more projects in the pipeline. It is a pity that no matter how large the income of the sector is, there is still no programme in place to save workers who are still diluting their labour for months, even in the face of a catastrophe. Although not as catastrophic as Covid, the living standards of garment workers living in free trade zones were not up to par. In such an environment, the onset of a  pandemic is a huge blow to their lives.

With the rise Covid 19 pandemic, a number of cases of gross violations of the rights of workers in the garment industry were reported. A survey released last year by RED (Revolutionary Existence for Human Development), an organization working for free trade zone worker rights, found that the total number of workers (11,000) who lost their jobs in free trade zones was related to the impact of Covid-19 on the economic and social conditions of free trade zone workers. According to information received from the Board of Investment, factories and the government, 3366 workers had already been affected in the trade zones, of which 1236 were victims. Those figures are now even higher. It stated that 8000 garments had been closed and about 4000 employees were facing severe difficulties.

Organizations dealing with workers in the regions, the Commissioner-General of Labor and BOI officials held a discussion at the Department of Labor last November and decided to provide employees with an allowance of Rs. 5,000 for working in a specific factory for at least three consecutive months on a manpower basis. Organizations such as the Dabindu Collective, Stand Up Moment Lanka, Revolutionary Existence for Human Development (RED), and the Shramabhimani Center say that despite their demands, they have not materialized.

Already, a large number of garment workers in the Free Trade Zones face a number of problems such as job losses, non-payment of wages, non-receipt of annual bonuses, having to bear the cost of PCR tests to go home, and having to face several days of mandatory quarantine in hostels. Workers from the North and East who have settled down and worked in free trade zones are also facing a severe crisis. In the midst of many such problems, there have been reports of overstaffing, non-payment of overtime pay, cancellation of leave, etc., and dismissals of employees who do not comply with these conditions. Local authorities and institutions that are supposed to stand up for the protection of workers’ rights, as well as their fundamental rights, should be directly involved in the activities of the FTZs that are being ignored and violated.

The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Sri Lanka Press Institute.

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