Don’t intimidate and silence garment factory workers, HRW tells Govt. and employers

The Sri Lankan government, factory owners, and the international clothes brands sourcing from Sri Lanka should protect the safety and employment rights of garment workers during the Covid-19 pandemic, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said today (12).

South Asia director at Human Rights Watch Meenakshi Ganguly stated that the government and employers should fully implement existing agreements and guidelines, be transparent about Covid-19 infections in factories, and provide for workers’ welfare instead of “intimidating and silencing them”

Further attention was drawn to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s decision to keep garment factories open while the rest of the country went into a series of lockdowns.

“Trade unions and public health inspectors have reported numerous virus outbreaks in factories, as well as in the congested boarding houses where many workers live, and alleged that employers were under-testing and under-reporting cases to maintain production levels,” HRW said.

According to Ganguly, Sri Lanka’s garment workers are entitled to work in safety and be properly paid even when they fall sick or need to quarantine.

HRW highlighted that even though there have been repeated outbreaks in garment factories since April, five labor rights activists from four organizations told HRW that they have received complaints from workers that factory managers pressured workers to work without adequate occupational health and safety measures.

“All five said that numerous workers from different factories complained to them that they lost pay when they fell sick or needed to quarantine. The activists said that the police or military personnel had intimidated them to stop them from speaking out,” HRW stated

HRW highlighted that following an October 2020 Covid-19 outbreak in a factory owned by Brandix Lanka Limited, the government made it mandatory for all factories to have a Covid-19 health committee, including management and workers’ representatives. As of early July, people interviewed said most factories had not established the committees.

Attention was also drawn to the government’s issuance of guidelines requiring garment factories to take occupational health and safety measures for ventilation, screening, testing, and isolating infected workers. HRW underscored that despite these guidelines, labor rights activists have consistently raised concerns in written statements that employers were flouting the same, despite government claims that health measures are enforced. 

“Labor rights are reserved to a piece of paper,” one activist said, adding that workers, “are scared of losing their jobs, so even when they have symptoms they continue to go to work.”

Another labor activist said, “If factories are aware of a positive test, they don’t do anything about it or share the information” with health authorities. An activist who had assisted workers who were sick with the virus said, “The employers are busy with their orders and workers are not given PCR [Covid-19] tests, because if they are positive, they will not be able to employ them in production.”

The government and factory owners should take effective steps to isolate workers who test positive, and ensure that those receiving treatment or in isolation or quarantine receive full pay, Human Rights Watch said. Relief packages should be distributed to workers irrespective of which part of the country they come from, and safety measures and guidelines previously agreed upon with worker representatives should be followed.

It stated that attempts to intimidate or coerce workers and their representatives, attacks on freedom of association, including the right to join a trade union, and attempts to stifle freedom of expression, should be immediately withdrawn. Foreign companies that buy clothes from Sri Lanka, and trading partners, including the European Union, whose GSP+ trading arrangement includes commitments to uphold labor rights, should press Sri Lanka to adhere to its commitments.

International and local labor rights groups from numerous countries have started a campaign for brands to help support workers and shore up social protection systems by joining a Wage Assurance Fund and Severance Guarantee Fund. Brands should support such initiatives, Human Rights Watch said.

Sri Lankan garment manufactures have applied for loans from the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a part of the World Bank Group. Therefore, it urged for the IFC should rigorously ensure that companies receiving loans adhere to its performance standards on labor and working conditions, and uphold fundamental labor rights enshrined in ILO conventions, including freedom of association and collective bargaining.

“Sri Lankan garment workers don’t just provide for their families, they help to keep the entire economy afloat during these very difficult times,” Ganguly said. “Their safety needs to be protected and their rights respected by the global garment industry that relies on their labor.