Work and Death in Sri Lanka’s Garment Industry

Sitting by itself in a room that contains two slim beds and a little desk, Priyangika is sick with COVID-19. She fell sick immediately after the virus distribute by the garment manufacturing facility where by she functions in the extensive Katunayake Free Trade Zone outside Colombo, Sri Lanka.

“When I termed the operator of the boarding household to say I tested beneficial for coronavirus, he scolded me, expressing that we carry filthy health conditions,” said Priyangika, whose identify has been adjusted to protect her anonymity.

Sri Lanka is dwelling to some of the largest garment manufacturers in the globe. Its central lender has described a 183 % rise in exports due to the fact April 2020 — mainly attributed to the attire sector. But even as rich nations in the West start to open back again up many thanks to abundant vaccines and medical center capacities, the island nation is at present going through a deadly third wave of COVID-19 and lately claimed its greatest solitary day of fatalities. In a globalized world of both equally virus transmission and outfits output, Sri Lanka’s garment workers are at the moment caught among generation targets and destitution, sickness and raising authoritarianism.

While Sri Lanka’s clothing sector has a hard-gained status for remaining safer than many other countries’, garment factories have stayed open up in the course of recent lockdowns with the General public Wellness Inspectors Union now indicating most COVID sufferers are in the clothes sector. In a assertion, Amnesty Worldwide mentioned clothing manufacturing continuing irrespective of confined screening and insufficient quarantine or treatment services for unwell manufacturing facility employees, as nicely as a absence of vaccine prioritization for people garment personnel. 

As factories go on to churn out jeans, T-shirts, bras, and sportswear, unions and labor rights campaigners say workers’ rights in Sri Lanka have deteriorated. Ashila Dandeniya is a former garment worker who founded the Stand Up Motion to stand for garment employees in Sri Lanka and has expended the pandemic distributing more than six thousand emergency meals parcels to quarantining personnel.

“There have been a large amount of unfair terminations — maybe another person was 5 minutes late to get the job done, or they were unable to meet generation targets, or they were just terminated for the reason that they’d been doing work in the manufacturing facility for less than 6 months,” Dandeniya claims.

In accordance to Dandeniya, the perception that excessive actions had been essential to get factories “back on track” has in flip normalized draconian actions from administration. Even actions meant to protect employees have led to further exploitation. Social distancing, for instance, usually means factories are minimizing the amount of workers who clock in each and every day. “Before it would be fifteen to twenty folks doing a person operation now it is 5 persons. Five men and women to do the perform of fifteen to twenty,” Dandeniya says. “No matter how challenging or bodily straining it is, if personnel say they simply cannot do it, they are questioned to leave.”

Roshani, whose name has also been improved, spent most of the pandemic as a short-term “manpower” employee earning 900 LKR ($4.50) for each day. Her position consisted of sitting down on the flooring surrounded by devices and snipping free threads off outfits, then packaging them into bundles so large she could hardly drag them across the manufacturing unit ground. Administrators set severe targets and anyone who failed to meet them was not requested back again the up coming working day.

Staying a momentary employee arrived with an more stigma: “Permanent staff members imagine about manpower workers as spreaders of corona, as we do the job in distinctive factories every single working day,” Roshani states. “They really do not talk considerably with us, and they address us as inferior. When we wander, they give us a vast berth.”

In March 2021, Roshani secured a everlasting situation at a factory, but discovered it no much less exhausting. Manpower staff were bused to and from factories, but, as a long-lasting worker, she experienced to make her very own way across the Free Trade Zone. 

“Some days I had to depart the home close to 5 AM. There are no buses at that time, so I walked. I did additional time until eventually 7 or 8 PM. There was no time for me to use the washroom or drink water.” That month, Roshani gained 23,000 LKR ($116).

The website link concerning Sri Lanka’s garment factories and COVID-19 an infection rates is a controversial subject. In November 2020, Reuters claimed that a thousand personnel at the Brandix manufacturing facility in Minuwangoda had examined optimistic for COVID-19. With factories in numerous international locations, Brandix is just one of the world’s largest garment brands, producing dresses for Gap, Victoria’s Secret, and Marks & Spencer, among the other folks. 

A few official studies have investigated the Brandix outbreak, which researchers have joined to Sri Lanka’s second wave. Just one report was commissioned by the Sri Lanka’s labour minister, just one by the lawyer basic, and just one by Brandix by itself, which says it was not liable for the outbreak and has been unfairly focused. None of the stories have so significantly been produced community. 

In the aftermath of the Brandix outbreak, the Labour Ministry proposed factories set up bipartite COVID-19 security committees consisting of employers, staff, and trade unions. Still these committees have continue to not been set up in the huge majority of Sri Lanka’s garment factories. 

“The suitable to facts on wellness difficulties is a workers’ right. Staff will have to have the appropriate to refuse do the job which is detrimental to their wellbeing,” states Anton Marcus, joint secretary of the Absolutely free Trade Zones & Normal Companies Staff members Union (FTZ&GSEU). “We clarify [to employers] that COVID-19 is not an occupational disease. COVID-19 is a pandemic and as a result the measures to reduce the spreading of the virus should really go further than the factory to consist of dwelling conditions for employees and transport.”

The FTZ&GSEU is presently negotiating the development of a union at Upcoming Producing Ltd, a manufacturing unit in Sri Lanka owned and run by British apparel firm Next plc, soon after workers voted to sort a branch in January 2021. Upcoming Production Ltd is 1 of the factories exactly where there is presently an outbreak of COVID-19. In May possibly, a spokesperson for Following informed Jacobin that whilst protection is a major precedence, 143 personnel experienced examined positive at the factory. The FTZ&GSEU thinks this determine was very well more than two hundred and set to raise.

British campaign group War on Want think factories’ reluctance to produce COVID-19 bipartite health and fitness committees has a straightforward clarification: “They want to push production forward as substantially as doable with small disruption or expenditure to preserve their income margins,” Ruth Ogier at War on Want explained to Jacobin. “This is why correct security steps and correct checking have not been put in area. The outcome is a rapidly growing selection of scenarios in garment factories and communities.” 

Back again in her little home in the boarding home, Priyangika shares a toilet with five other gals. Her wage is far too tiny for her to afford her very own area, however her roommate moved out following Priyangika tested good for Coronavirus. Cooking products have been put in her room and a quarantine signal set on her door. 

Much from the loved ones her income can help to guidance, Priyangika is unable to say no matter whether she will be paid out for the time she is unwell off perform. “I really do not know irrespective of whether they will spend me or not. I do not know what they will pay out me until finally I get the income.” She is, even so, still predicted to shell out total hire and energy prices at the boarding residence. 

She hopes things will not get as lousy as all through the second-wave lockdown when she stayed within for 6 months: “I was mentally broken down,” Priyangika states. “I was limited to the 4 partitions of the boarding dwelling and I could not go back again to my village.” For the duration of this time, she also went hungry: “I didn’t have foodstuff in the course of this time. I ate rice sprinkled with salt.” 

During the pandemic, Sri Lanka’s garment personnel have continued to sew clothing for some of the major brands in the entire world. Sri Lanka’s manufacturing facility owner affiliation, the Joint Attire Association Discussion board (JAAF), lists H&M, Calvin Klein, Hugo Boss, Levi’s, and Uniqlo among its consumers. A collective of women’s rights teams in Sri Lanka, like the Stand Up Motion, are contacting for style customers to spend a high quality for output during lockdown or restricted intervals, and for this top quality to be provided straight to workers as hazard pay.

But rather, the fashion industry’s reaction to COVID-19 has found brands terminate billions of bucks of orders, placing a big pressure on manufacturers. JAAF a short while ago revealed an open letter stating makes ended up telling factories to airlift garments orders to make up for delays. “Due to the worldwide inequity in vaccine distribution, you and the nations you reside in are starting off to relieve restrictions and go back to what life seemed like pre COVID-19 though we have been crippled by nevertheless yet another wave that has seen COVID-19 situations increase by in excess of 130 % in two months,” the statement read through.

JAAF informed Jacobin that they are “working incredibly closely with the govt authorities to ensure the protection of workforce and the group even though keeping the industry operating,” and that a nationwide rollout of the vaccine is essential to receiving the scenario less than command. Campaigners want the governing administration to vaccinate all Absolutely free Trade Zone employees within two weeks. But there is no indication that garment staff have but to be prioritized.

Inspite of this, gurus say Sri Lanka’s garment factories are safer than all those in neighboring countries like Bangladesh and India: “In a lot of methods the sector is ahead of the recreation — in particular with regards to the created house and do the job situations within just the manufacturing facility flooring,” clarifies Dr Kanchana Ruwanpura at the College of Gothenburg. 

But there remains an overarching moral difficulty facing Sri Lanka. “There isn’t ample worldwide recognition for Sri Lanka that it is also a militarized regime in a sense,” says Dr Ruwanpura, whose forthcoming e-book tackles the existence of a highly effective armed forces. She factors out that Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 task pressure is entirely manufactured up of armed service officers. Many of these officers have extremely brutal data. The head of the nationwide operations center for COVID-19 prevention is military commander Shavendra Silva, the target of a US-imposed travel ban for war crimes dedicated during the ultimate phases of the conflict versus the Tamil Tigers in 2009, when up to seventy thousand Tamil civilians have been killed. And Sri Lanka’s recent chief, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, served as protection secretary during the vicious counterinsurgency.

Massive sections of the garment workforce are youthful ladies who migrated to Totally free Trade Zones from when-war-torn rural areas. As well as creating a hazardous environment in which dissent more than labor rights abuses qualified prospects to intimidation, the development of an army-led COVID response has seen garment workers forcibly moved to quarantine facilities. 

Even though she was even now doing the job as a momentary manpower worker, Roshani obtained a phone call with the news that military personnel had taken the inhabitants of her boarding dwelling, like the owner, to a quarantine middle 100 km absent soon after just one of the boarders analyzed good. She used the future 20-one times hiding alone in the boarding house, holding the lights off and fearing that troopers could return. 

“The attire sector demands to start off considering about what [a militarized regime] signifies for claims close to ethicality,” Dr Ruwanpura concludes. “Everybody accepts Myanmar is militarized, but they are not acknowledging what is happening in Sri Lanka.”