Trade unions active in the Free Trade Zones of the Apparel sector this week launched a countrywide campaign urging the Board of Investment (BOI) and other relevant authorities, to press home demands for a wage increase of not less than 15%.
The campaign titled ‘Three B’s’- Better Pay Bigger Profit with BOI sharing, commenced with the distribution of some 10,000 postcards mailed to the authorities by individual factory hands, which explains their difficulties with the ever rising cost of living among other matters, and hence, the crying need for a pay hike.
Leading the campaign is the Free Trade Zones & General Services Employees Union (FTZGSEU)- an umbrella grouping of several labour rights organizations, who are the most active in the Apparel sector.
Joint Secretary- FTZGSEU, Anton Marcus told the Sunday Times that the BOI had done a turnaround on an earlier assurance that the Apparel sector will receive a minimum 15% wage increase beginning next year. ‘However, that is not the case now. In a circular on November 1, the BOI had approved a salary increase of Rs. 500 after consulting employers’ representatives, while keeping the trade unions in the dark, Marcus added.
He further explained that, since Sri Lanka is a signatory to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention and the BOI being a State organization, it is obliged to act in accordance with the principle of tripartite consultations on matters related to employment.
“In it’s own policy statement on labour standards and employment, the BOI, has committed itself to establish appropriate machinery for consultation and cooperation between elected representatives of the employees and employers, on matters of mutual concern and offer fair wages and benefits”, Marcus said.
“We have now taken the matter up with the Minister for Economic Development Basil Rajapaksa, to have a re-think on the matter, and have the BOI increase wages as agreed, without further delay.
He said that, apart from the postcard drive, the Apparel workers are also sporting yellow wristbands as a sign of solidarity with the agitation.
Marcus warned of tougher trade union action, if the relevant authorities decide to remain stubborn on the issue.
Sri Lanka’s workers’ rights and other issues including wages, are also currently the centre of public debate at the State Department in Washington, after a powerful trade union in the US- the American Federation of Labour-International Co-operation (AFL-ICO) took the matter up, following representations made by the FTZGSEU, he said.
He added that, owing to the poor wages and living conditions, large numbers of their cadre are even leaving the Apparel sector for other jobs in their villages.
During the first six months of this year, an estimated 10,000 factory hands have left, and now there is an equal number of vacancies in the sector, he added.
Spokesman- BOI, Dilip Samarasinghe told the Sunday Times that, the Rs. 500 increase was decided on at a meeting with the manufacturers, and a circular to this effect was sent out on November 1.
The meeting also discussed ways of maintaining a harmonious relationship with the workers and also enforce uniformity in the labour standards in all the zones, he said.
“Apart from that, there is very little I can say at the moment, but the doors are always open for discussions with all stakeholders in the FTZ, and this includes trade unionists”, Samarasinghe further said.
When asked why workers representatives were not invited to the meeting with the manufacturers, he said: “This is something I cannot comment on”.