News

Ensure workers’ rights before extending GSP+:

  • EPZ workers write to EU Ambassador 

BY Pamodi Waravita 

The Stand Up Movement Lanka organisation has written to the European Union (EU), requesting that it intervene to ensure that the rights of workers in the Export Processing Zones (EPZs) are addressed prior to deciding on whether or not to extend the grant of the EU’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+) trade concessions to Sri Lanka. 

“There are 350,000 workers in the 15 EPZs under the Board of Investment (BOI) whose efforts pave the way for Sri Lanka to earn 14% of its annual export earnings. However, many local labour laws, the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and obligations under international conventions such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) are ignored by factory owners. The EU must address workers’ rights and unjust and illegal employment policies and practices in the EPZs before granting GSP+ privileges to Sri Lanka,” the organisation said in a letter to Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Delegation of the EU to Sri Lanka Denis Chaibi. 

The GSP+ trade concessions Monitoring Mission arrived in Sri Lanka on 27 September and is due to remain in the country till 5 October. The Stand Up Movement has requested a meeting with Chaibi to discuss the issues that workers in the EPZs face, especially in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The letter added that a committee was appointed by the Government to investigate the allegations against a leading apparel company – about the importation of Indian workers late last year (2020) and prepare a report on whether it led to the spread of Covid-19. 

“However, due to the influence of these factory owners, the report has not been released so far. Although travel restrictions and lockdowns were imposed across the country due to the escalating Covid-19 situation, the inclusion of services in the investment promotion zones on the list of essential services, forced these employees to come to work. But many were not provided with relief measures and support provided to other sectors engaged in essential services during Covid-19 pandemic situation,” alleged the organisation.

The organisation noted that about 50,000 workers in the EPZs have, to date, contracted the virus due to the failure of factory owners to take measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in the factories. It further claimed that factory owners are neglecting their responsibilities concerning isolating workers who test positive for the virus; instead opting to send them to their hostels or boarding rooms. Thus, adequate quarantine facilities are not being provided for them.

“Also, a large number of employees have been laid off so far. It has even deprived them of the statutory benefits they have been entitled to, due to working in factories for a long time. Also, factories in the investment promotion zones employ workers on a casual basis. These employees, who are co-ordinated by manpower agencies, don’t have many of the rights afforded to permanent employees. Because of this, they have no job security. These employees also don’t receive a salary commensurate with the cost of living. Further, they have to work without any leave to reach inaccessible targets,” added the letter.

Commenting on the recent termination of 16 workers at an apparel company in Wathupitiwala for attempting to form unions, the Stand Up Movement noted: “Many factory owners have rejected the right to form and become members of trade unions, which is a right provided for by the Trade Union Ordinance as amended and indirectly by the Constitution.”

Moreover, the organisation observed that a number of factories have appointed military officers to lead their human resources (HR) divisions, which has created a backdrop for unnecessary conflicts with employees and has led to widespread dissatisfaction amongst the workers.