Free trade zones: Operating on full throttle 

  • Workers being exploited by owners, accuse TUs 

  • Vaccination of FTZ workers ongoing says BOI 

By Uwin Lugoda 


Despite three Covid-19 waves, Sri Lanka’s free trade zones (FTZ) have been on full throttle, helping keep the country’s economy afloat. However, several unions have accused the factories within these zones of exploiting their workers and the Government for not taking responsibility for these workers. 

According to these union leaders, these accusations stem from the lack of priority given to these workers in terms of the vaccinations and overall disregard given to the welfare of these workers. Speaking to The Sunday Morning, three representatives from three different unions voiced their concerns and their expectations from the Government. 

Sri Lanka currently has 13 FTZs spread out within its borders, in which 266 enterprises are hosted, with 140,000 employees, 70% of whom are female workers originating from other parts of the country. These workers were the first to be impacted during the second wave in October 2020, due to the main outbreak happening within the Biyagama FTZ. 

Despite these setbacks, the FTZs have continued their work, with the workers being one of the only few employee groups to keep their original work pace. However, last month, four union groups, Dabindu Collective Sri Lanka, the Revolutionary Existence for Human Development (RED), the Sramabimani Kendraya, and the Standup Movement Lanka, wrote an open letter to the Ministry of Labour with demands to prioritise FTZ workers’ vaccinations. 

The letter also asked the Ministry to set up separate quarters in each factory for these workers to self-isolate or be placed in quarantine, if tested positive for Covid-19 or having come in contact with a Covid-19 patient. Despite these pleas, three leaders from these unions stated that the issues are yet to be addressed. 


Response from union leaders 

Speaking to us, Dabindu Collective Sri Lanka Programme Co-ordinator Chamila Thushari stated that the FTZ workers have been continuously working since the Government deemed the companies within the zone integral to the country’s economy. She explained that unlike other private and Government organisations which saw only 25% coming in to work, all the FTZ workers kept coming to work, increasing the number of Covid patients within these zones. 

“I have seen some companies have 100-plus cases, and even some going beyond 1,000 cases, but the workers were not given days off. These workers instead had to work in factories with no social distancing and live in cramped hostels, where they sometimes quarantined themselves for 14 days. This has increased the spread within those communities even further.” 

She stated that these workers who were quarantined were also given pay cuts, and lost perks such as the free lunch and tea they receive at factories, making them dip into their own savings. Moreover, she explained that since factory workers from multiple factories live in the same hostels, use the same transport, and even the same toilets, the rate of spread between the factories is also high. 

Thushari stated that this is why all four unions are asking the Government to prioritise these workers when it comes to the vaccine. She explained that it is important to prioritise these workers since it comes in limited numbers, and also requested the age of qualification for the vaccine be brought down from 30 to 18, since most factory workers were below 30. 

“The Central Bank said in their annual report that the apparel sector had an exponential growth increase in 2020. That was because of these workers. So, shouldn’t priority be given to them? Not even the PHIs sent to look after them have received their second dose of the vaccine. We have already written to JAAF (Joint Apparel Association Forum), the Labour Department, and the Labour Minister with no response. Now, we have written to international bodies such as the UN and the UNDP.” 

Adding to what Thushari said, RED Director Chandra Devanaraya stated in the Katunayake FTZ, the local villagers are prioritised over the migrant workers from other villages, leaving the workers to wait till the local community is done being vaccinated. She went on to state that they also learnt that the Sri Lanka Board of Investments (BOI) has currently only received 2,000 vaccine doses for the Katunayake FTZ workers, which has to be distributed across 83 companies.  

“We have around 50,000 people working in this zone, out of which, these workers account for 37,000; so, 2,000 isn’t enough. I heard one factory with 250 workers was only given enough vaccines for six to seven people.” 

She stated that some factories are also making pregnant women work despite telling the BOI that they have stopped making them work. She went on to state that not even these pregnant workers are a priority when it comes to vaccinations. 

Devanaraya stated that many of these companies are also not giving their workers PCR and antigen tests, despite being told to. She explained that her organisation is getting calls from workers who have been quarantined in their own hostels with nowhere to go. 

“We are told that these girls are not taken to the quarantine centre until maybe the third day, and even then, they do not stay there long, and are returned to their hostel before the tenth day. This further increases the risk of spreading. They also quarantine the entire hostel for 14 days each time a case is found. We hear one hostel has been consequently quarantined three times, leading to 40 days of quarantine for the residents.” 

She suggested that the factories should either close till the situation calms down, do regular PCRs and antigen testing, or give their workers vaccine priority. 

“Some factories aren’t even sterilising their work floors properly and some don’t even give their workers masks. We met girls who wash and reuse their disposable masks since they have no money to buy new ones.” 

Standout Movement Lanka Executive Director Achila Dandeniya further added to this and stated that the Government asked the FTZ companies to take responsibility for their workers, when it comes to PCR testing and taking care of workers who have tested positive. However, she went on to state that the companies were reluctant to do so and discussion between the companies and the Government ended there. 

“Now, there is no one taking responsibility for these workers; not the Government and not the company. Most workers cannot get the vaccine according to the district, since they are from far away villages. The companies should take on that responsibility and prioritise these workers. But they pick 30 to 40 workers out of 2,000 to 3,000 to vaccinate.” 

She also stated that these companies are doing fewer PCR tests than required, with only around 15 to 20 being done a week. She explained that they do this to keep the real number of cases low, so that workers would come into the factories and production will not be impacted. 

“If they get too many cases, these factories have to close down and take care of their employees, so they don’t want to do that. The workers also support this since positive cases means that they will be quarantined, with only those who tested positive being given any aid.” 

Dandeniya stated that if a factory worker tests positive, and the next worker in line does not test the same, the rest of the workers are not tested. She explained that some factories have had situations where 12 out of 15 of their production lines should have been shut down, but they had refused to do so. 

“These people are sacrificing their lives and working for these zones, but they are being exploited. Some factories have increased the workloads of their employees to make up for those in quarantine and these workers do not even have time to go to the toilet.” 


Current situation 

Speaking to us last week, BOI’s Head of Zones M.K.D. Lawrance stated that 20,916 FTZ workers out of 142,958 have been vaccinated as of 3 May. 

He explained that they are vaccinating workers according to the vaccines coming into the country, and its distribution decisions made by the Government. 

Out of these 20,916, Katunayaka has accounted for 5,894 workers, Biyagama 2,629, Kogala around 270, Kandy 6,000, Mirigama 1,546, and Malwatta 260, with the rest being from other FTZs. 

Lawrance stated that Sinopharm had been given to the workers so far while Sputnik was given to workers in the Kandy FTZ. 

“We are constantly asking for the FTZ workers to be vaccinated, but it all depends on the number of vaccines coming in and its distribution. We were told two million vaccines will be coming into Sri Lanka next week, and so, we plan on vaccinating all the workers in BOI companies within the next two weeks, especially those in the apparel sector.”