Eight civil society organizations and trade unions of the Free Trade Zones (FTZ) along with manpower workers are calling on the international community to urge the Sri Lankan government and factory owners to save the lives of tens of thousands of factory workers.
They also called on the Sri Lankan government to take immediate action to manage the prevailing crisis and to vaccinate workers with immediate effect. The request has been made to international authorities, including the United Nations, international brands and foreign missions in Sri Lanka.
The request was made by the National Union of Metal and Migrant Workers of Sri Lanka (NUMMS), Dabindu Collective, Revolutionary Existence for Human Development (RED), Shrama Abhimani Center, Stand Up Movement Lanka, National Union of Sri Lankan Sailors (NUSS), Ceylon Trade and Industry and General Workers Union (CIWU), Textile,Garment and Clothing Workers Union (TGCWU)
It has been two weeks since the Minister of Labor Nimal Siripala de Silva and other relevant authorities including the Minister of Health, the Minister of Primary Health Care, the Commissioner General of Labor and the Board of Investment were informed about this, but no action has been taken so far. The organizations point out that in order to properly assess the current crisis, all factories should be closed for at least two weeks and extensive PCR testing should be carried out.
The organizations also said, “We, as civil society organisations (CSOs) and trade unions working with Free Trade Zone (FTZ) and Manpower agency factory workers, wish to appeal to the international community, to urgently pressure the Government of Sri Lanka and factory owners, to protect the lives of tens of thousands of factory workers. These workers have been working throughout the COVID-19 outbreak in Sri Lanka, including through island-wide lockdowns since March last year (2020), putting their lives at great risk. Random PCR testing has resulted in hundreds of workers testing positive, and being made to self-quarantine at their respective hostels, or sent away to State run quarantine centres, which have bare minimum facilities and no access to medical treatment. Workers have said that some centres have been dirty and unhygienic, with many not even dispensing basics such as Vitamin C or Coriander water (a common local remedy for coughs and colds.)
Meanwhile, the Central Bank has reported that Sri Lanka has seen a 183% rise in exports since April 2020. This increase is largely attributed to the apparel sector, but, whilst the Government and factory owners reap these profits, the workers remain unprotected, not prioritised for vaccination and largely left to fend for themselves.
We sent an urgent open letter and list of demands, dated 15th May, 2021, addressed to the Labour Minister, Nimal Siripala de Silva, with other relevant Government officials, including the Minister of Health, State Minister of Primary Health Care, Commissioner General of Labour and the Board of Investment. Two weeks on, we have yet to receive any response to our letter, which was also published in the media.
It is in this context, that we appeal to the United Nations, world renowned brands that manufacture in Sri Lanka, and the larger international community, to heed this desperate plea and take immediate steps to apply pressure on the Government and factory owners, to protect workers, who we demand must be treated, not just as essential workers, but, as frontline workers, as both their work and shared accommodation requires them to be in close proximity to multiple other workers, thus increasing their risk of contracting the virus exponentially.
We therefore reiterate the following six main demands;
1. Shut down ALL factories for at least two weeks PAID LEAVE, and carry out widespread PCR testing so as to make a proper assessment of the ongoing crisis. Based on these findings, informed decisions can be made, in consultation with workers, CSOs and trade unions.
2. Prioritise and fast-track the COVID-19 vaccination of ALL workers in the FTZ and apparel supply chain, both in the western province and the rest of the country. This should include both regular/permanent and Manpower workers. Set up awareness and vaccination centers at health facilities near the zones, and at the gates of the different Free Trade Zones (FTZ). Have a target of vaccinating all workers within a two week period.
3. Immediately take measures to trace, isolate and transport workers who test positive, and their first contacts, to quarantine centres. The workers should be informed of the COVID-19 infection situation at their respective factories on a daily basis.
4. Workers who are forced into quarantine centers or self-isolation due to being exposed to COVID-19 infection at their work place, on the way to work, or at their boarding house, must be given full pay for quarantine days, and no reduction in attendance bonus and other related incentives. Any quarantine related expenses must be reimbursed by factory owners to the workers.
5. Ensure that the Rs. 5,000 monthly relief ration pack/allowance, promised by the Government, be distributed to all workers too, irrespective of election lists.
6. Ensure that all factories strictly adhere to health and safety guidelines, such as, regular checking of temperature of workers, work space and machinery lay-out that maintains recommended distance between workers, regular sanitizing of machines, surfaces and raw materials, providing PPE for all workers, washing hands regularly etc.”