In a letter addressed to Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission, the recently formed Civil Society Collective for the Rights of FTZ Workers has requested the Issuance of recommendations to ensure that the rights of workers are not violated by the programs to control COVID 19 in the Kayunayaka Free Trade Zone.
The letter follows:
Civil Society Collective for the Rights of FTZ Workers,
No. 19/4A, Pagoda Road,
19 October 2020
Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission,
No. 14, R.A. De Mel Mawatha,
Request for the Issuance of Recommendations to Ensure that the Rights of Workers Are Not Violated by the Programs to Control COVID 19 in the Free Trade Zone.
Control of the COVID 19 epidemic, which is, unfortunately, developing as a second wave in the Free Trade Zones of Sri Lanka, has become rather challenging. Informal and coercive measures that have been taken by the health and security sectors to combat this epidemic, some of the irresponsible actions of officials who are responsible in controlling the situation and the stigmatization that the workers of the Free Trade Zones are responsible for the second wave of COVID 19 in Sri Lanka have caused dire consequences and issues to the men and women workers of the Free Trade Zones.
Civil society, at this moment, extends its fullest corporation to the COVID 19 control programs and other health care programs that are being carried out by the Government, and the Health and Security sectors in Sri Lanka. We also urge all citizens to act responsibly and support these efforts to fight the spread of this epidemic.
The epidemic of COVID 19 is a severe challenge to all mankind, regardless of race, caste, creed or any other social differences. Much like in almost every other country, Sri Lanka’s experience is that a particular community or social class cannot be attributed as the reason for the spread of the virus. However, the impact caused by this epidemic and measures to control it on the poor, less privileged or vulnerable groups of the society cannot be underestimated. Having said this, we do realize that Free Trade Zone’s workers’ communities made up vastly of women who once migrated to these trade zones from rural areas, representing diverse ethnic groups, are among the most vulnerable groups. Right now, the second wave of COVID 19 springs into the country from these Free Trade Zones. It is our understanding that this development is a result of the severe lack of health security and poor living and work conditions that unfortunately prevails throughout the Free Trade Zones.
The actions taken in the fight against COVID 19, at times, affect the rights of individuals and different groups. Yet, COVID 19 is not a license that permits complete disregard of the rights of the people. We recall that the guidelines/directions issued previously by the World Health Organization, International Labor Organization, as well as you as Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission, emphasized the importance of equal attention to protect the rights of individuals / groups in the fight against COVID 19.
An effective program to prevent COVID 19 cannot be an isolated fight by the Government but a correlated effort by the health sector, security officials and, most importantly, the people. The process for this must be carried out in defense of the individual rights enshrined in the Constitution of this country. However, at this challenging juncture, we have observed that the Constitutionally guaranteed rights to information, to not to be subjected to degrading or discriminating treatments are no longer a reality for the men and women workers of the Free Trade Zones.
The impact of these developments in the Free Trade Zones is nothing but a severe blow to the economic growth of Sri Lanka. Free Trade Zones must resume their operations and must be able to ensure human rights and the labor rights of their workers. In order for this requirement to be materialized, a steady and a thoughtful quarantine and control programs should take place.
The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka Act No. 21 of 1996 empowers the Human Rights Commission to ensure that the provisions relating to fundamental rights cherished in the Constitution are properly implemented and that all executive and administrative actions are in accordance with international human rights standards and norms. Accordingly, it is the utmost responsibility of the Human Rights Commission to scrutinize the administrative actions of the Government on the basis of human rights standards recognized by the Constitution of this country and to ensure that the human rights of citizens are not violated through such administrative actions.
We gratefully recall the many instances in which the Human Rights Commission acted in line with this responsibility. In such instances, the Commission issued recommendations to the relevant parties and specified the manner in which certain administrative action should be implemented in accordance with fundamental rights and principles of human rights. We believe such recommendations have significantly resulted in the advancement of human rights in this country.
A number of key issues which are faced consistently by the men and women workers of the Free Trade Zones have been observed by us and are listed in the Annexure 01 to this letter for your reference. The Annexure 02 enclosed within this letter has already been submitted to you on the 16th of October; it brings your attention to the struggles faced by the working sector as a result of the military approach in COVID 19 control programs in the Free Trade Zones.
Based on these, we request the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka to carefully assess these developments and to issue recommendations to be followed through the COVID 19 control programs in Free Trade Zones in order to ensure such programs are in accordance with the rights of the workers. We further request that the Presidential Task Force on COVID 19, National Operation Center for Prevention of COVID 19 Outbreak, Sri Lanka Army, Sri Lanka Police, and any other institution/mechanism relevant to this matter be informed sufficiently of such recommendations.
We also call on Human Rights Commission to draw the attention of the Commissioner-General of Labor to the issued of job security, the security of remunerations and other institutional issues now prevail in the Free Trade Zones as a result of this epidemic.
For this, we suggest, to conduct a consultation meeting with various stakeholders. Such stakeholders may include representatives of the workers of Free Trade Zones, Trade Union officials, Civil Society representatives, officials of the Board of Investments of Sri Lanka, representatives of the Presidential Task Force for COVID 19, Representatives of Employer’s unions, Security officials, Health sector officials and officials of the labor department.
Rights Now Collective for Democracy
Chamila Thushari- Dabidu Collective, Katunayake
Padmini Weerasooriya- Women’s Center, Ekala
Ashila Niroshini Dandeniya- Stand Up Movement Lanka, Katunayake
Chandra Devanarayana- Revolutionary Existence for human Development (RED), Katunayake
As of now, the COVID 19 epidemic has apparently developed not only into a public health issue but also into a human rights crisis, especially in the Free Trade Zones of Sri Lanka. We would like to bring in to the following key issues which cause the said crisis of human rights.
01. Hateful and degrading remarks.
With the onset of the epidemic in the Free Trade Zones, we observe an alarming increase of hate speech and abusive degrading remarks based on the sex, professions, and femininity of the workers of the apparel industry. These remarks prevail largely across the mainstream state and privately-owned media as well as on social media. As a result of this, workers of the apparel industry have been alleged as the ones who are responsible for exposing Sri Lanka again to COVID 19. Especially as a result of these allegations, a situation which threatens the social existence of these workers has emerged.
02. Denial of personal dignity
It has been reported that apparel industry workers who are quarantined or transported to hospitals are loaded onto buses without providing clear information to them or other relevant parties. Further, it has been observed that these workers are being subjected to discrimination as a result of failure to provide proper sanitation facilities at quarantine centers and by subjecting them to health precautions (i.e. carrying out PCR tests in a harmful and a reckless manner) in a degrading manner.
In particular, it has been reported that Sri Lanka Army personnel involved in handling the quarantine process have been reckless and discriminating in doing so. Actions by such military personnel have often included arbitrarily gathering workers even at night time, not allowing a reasonable time for the workers to prepare in order to leave for the quarantine process, loading workers into busses without due attention to social distancing, and transporting the workers away without duly providing information. It has been observed by the civil society that this nature of the process gives the impression to the workers and the rest of the society that these workers are not the victims of an unfortunate epidemic but the suspects for some sort of criminal offence. Among those who are subjected to degrading treatments like these are women, pregnant mothers, senior citizens, and children/infants. We emphasize that in the quarantine of these people it is imperative that they provide clear information about their whereabouts and that they be able to be quarantined without being denied of their personal dignity.
03. Health Insecurities
The current developments in the Free Trade Zones imply that, despite the fact the outbreak of COVID 19 was not fully under control in Sri Lanka, a majority of factories located in the Free Trade Zones have disregarded their liabilities to assure a safe working environment for the workers.
International Labor Organization recommends that, as per the provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Convention, 1981 (No. 155), Employers take full responsibility for ensuring practical steps to reduce the risk of COVID 19 infection in the workplace and to protect workers from the disease. It is also the responsibility of employers to properly educate their employees in the event of an outbreak and to provide them with appropriate training on workplace safety and hygiene. These guidelines by the ILO are also straight on the fact that employers are also obliged to inform labor authorities if a worker becomes ill in the workplace.
However, it has been observed that employers/companies in the Free Trade Zones have knowingly disregarded these guidelines.
As per the section 95 of the order published in the gazette numbered 2197/25, which is issued under the Quarantine & Prevention of Diseases Ordinance, any business may not exceed the maximum number of persons permitted within the premises at a time stipulated by the proper authority. Further to this, it has also been provided that businesses should ensure social distancing of not less than one meter between two persons.
However, the fact that workers are transported without due care to the requirements of social distancing, and workers are transported before being subjected to the PCR tests creates a risk of all workers contracting the disease. We, therefore, observe that the right to health of workers in the Free Trade Zone is clearly deprived by this informal and coercive quarantine process.
04. Job security and security of remunerations
Threats to the job security and security of remunerations develop gradually in the Free Trade Zones since March 2020. The Apparel industry is the second largest industry in Sri Lanka in terms of the export income. While the apparel industry contributes to 07% of Sri Lanka’s Gross Domestic Product, it owns an enormous 44% of the country’s entire export income – this is more than US Dollar 05 Billion annually. However, the minimum monthly wage paid to apparel industry workers has been reduced to Rs. 14,500/- since March this year as a result of reduced export due to the outbreak of COVID 19. Several incentives paid to these workers such as payments for overtime work have been cut off completely. As a result of the situation, nearly 10 factories have been shut down its operations so far. Despite suffering from a shortage of nearly 74,000 workers, factory owners have used the country-wide lockdown/curfew imposed in March to their advantage by starting lay-off and discouraging trade union activities. It has been reported that more than 80,000 jobs have been laid-off in the Free Trade Zones thus far. We emphasize that lay-offs and pay cuts would not be a solution to the financial crisis faced by these factories as a result of the COVID 19 outbreak and that it will deprive the fundamental rights of the workers in the Free Trade Zones.
05. Lack of a responsible party on behalf of manpower employees.
In the current situation, the workers who have been working through Man Power companies have been most affected by the crisis. So far, no Man Power employee has been allowed to work in the companies and no employer is ready to take on their responsibilities. Since these workers are not permanent employees of any company, they do not have any privileges or institutional benefits such as employee provident, insurance, compensation, allowances. Manpower employees are also being denied accommodation due to their inability to pay rent for accommodation simply because they live on a daily wage. Especially since they are a group that rapidly moves their services from one company to another on a daily basis, they are more vulnerable and more likely to be stigmatized as carriers of the disease. Although they have been an integral part of the Sri Lankan workforce, the rights of these people have been seriously violated in the face of the situation.
06. Force labor and denial of leave
The unfortunate woman worker who became the first identified COVID 19 infected patient from the Brandix Factory in Minuwangoda later stated that although there were employees in the company who have shown signs of illness, no leave or medical examination has taken place. The Management of the Brandix factory has reportedly forced the workers who informed inability to work due to sickness after issuing them some mundane pain medications. Workers also stated that the Management denied their right to leave the workplace citing the company’s need to complete an urgent order.
This has been the situation in the company mentioned above as well as in many other factories. Despite the labor rights of workers, these factories have made it mandatory for employees to report to work under any circumstances.
The International Labor Organization has stated in its guidelines that workers have the right to leave the workplace in the event that they believe there is an urgent threat to their health or life. The recommendations also state that if an employee leaves, he/she should not face dismissal or disciplinary action against the employee for that reason.
07. Concern for languages used in epidemic management
As per the Trade Unions, a large number of those working in the Free Trade Zones are migrants from various parts of the country, and that it includes thousands of workers who only speak and work in the Tamil language. Therefore, it is necessary to ensure the availability of services and information in the Tamil language as well. Especially, facilitating these workers to obtain accurate and clear information in the language they are familiar with is quite important to ensure effective engagement of these workers with the health sector officials working to control COVID 19.
08. Denial of freedom to join trade unions
As per the article 14 of the Constitution of Sri Lanka, the freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of association, and freedom to join a trade union is a fundamental right. The Government of Sri Lanka has further strengthened this right along with the right to collective bargaining by ratifying the ILO Conventions No. 87 and 98. However, the workers of the Free Trade Zones are not entitled to any of these rights.
We, therefore, emphasize that rights, including the right to health of the workers of the Brandix factory in Minuwangoda, would have been protected if their freedom to join a trade union or to right to collective bargaining had been assured in the first place.
09. Military engagement
As detailed in the annexure 02 enclosed here within, the military engagement to control COVID 19 has caused additional issues to the workers’ community of the Free Trade Zones. We emphasize that the fight against epidemics is not a war and that military personnel must be trained before engaging in such civilian activities.
Annex 02: Annexure 02 English