As is often the case, the death of an employee, Ms.S. Gunawathie, of “Next” export manufacturing facility in the Katunayake EPZ on September 07, after she was admitted to the Negombo District Hospital, blew up large with some who thought they could capture headlines and then fizzled off, leaving the FTZ and General Services employees [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Food poisoning in factories: Are we ignoring the larger picture?


As is often the case, the death of an employee, Ms.S. Gunawathie, of “Next” export manufacturing facility in the Katunayake EPZ on September 07, after she was admitted to the Negombo District Hospital, blew up large with some who thought they could capture headlines and then fizzled off, leaving the FTZ and General Services employees union to fight for compensation. Her death was due to a rupture of a blood vessel in her brain, according to the Consultant JMO, District Hospital Negombo. She was admitted to the hospital along with about 150 other workers, after falling sick having consumed food provided by the factory. Most were treated as outpatients. Gunawathie along with five others were admitted and she with another was transferred to the ICU, the following day.

FIle pic of workers protest

Despite the Consultant JMO’s verdict on Gunawathie, the fact remains, there had been a case of food poisoning at Next factory, for around 150 workers to fall sick after their mid day meal and to be rushed to hospital. “Next” is not the first to face such an ordeal and as things go for now, will not be the last either. On April 6, 2009, and not for the first time too, a news caption read, “Food poisoning: garment factory workers hospitalised”. This was in Avissawella and the report said, “around 15 workers were treated”. On April 4, 2010 another news caption said, “Food poisoning – tough action against employers soon”. This was in Mahiyangana. The news report said, “The Labour Ministry has stressed the need to implement strict laws to take action against employers who provide meals to employees without the supervision of Public Health Inspectors or the relevant health authorities in their areas.” While the Labour Ministry vowed tough action nine months before, in another news report published on January 4, 2011, the caption read, “Food poisoning sickens more than 150″. This was in the Katunayake EPZ. Again on October 9, 2013, the media reported, “19 garment factory workers hospitalised for food poisoning”. Medawachchiya police was quoted in the report as saying, they were investigating. Yet again, this year began with the caption “New Year Horror for Garment Factory Girls” reported on January 3, 2014. The report said, “At the moment around 200 patients are receiving treatment at the Horana hospital while another 150 are being treated at the Homagama hospital. A few others are warded at the Padukka hospital”. The total therefore exceeds 350 workers from a garment factory in Horana. Admitted to hospital along with about 150 workers after the mid day meal, Gunawathie’s death one month ago, thus strikes a haunting bell over the quality of food provided by factories.

The requirement to provide a free main meal to all workers in export oriented companies was laid down by President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993, after his 200 garment factory programme was launched. He was convinced, these workers are from a poor rural background, they earn a major share of the much needed foreign exchange for the country and also earn profits to the employer. They not only deserved a good quality meal free, but needed one also, as they are being exploited by company owners to the maximum possible limit. As one major player in the export industry who denies union rights to his employees, once told me, his employees “earn a decent pay, as he provides them overtime every day and they work even on Saturdays and on public holidays.” What he does not want to admit is, all that comes under compulsion. One, they need money to survive as humans and the salary is too meagre for that. Overtime after work, on Saturdays and on public holidays is how they earn to live. Two, they have to continue in employment and therefore cannot refuse when asked (ordered?) to stay back to finish orders. They therefore cannot even do their groceries, leave alone cooking for themselves, in crowded lodgings.

This reality was what President Premadasa thought he could compromise with, by providing a good square meal every day at work and free. The BOI, the Labour Ministry and the Department and all factory owners under BOI approval know, this main meal has to be given free and as a quality meal. It is only the present day employee who wouldn’t know it is a violation to charge part of the cost of the meal from him/her. To date the BOI, the main regulator of the export industry has kept a blind eye on this violation that provides the employer a freehand in supplying food on their own terms and conditions. Also, the cost charged on the employees turn out as profit squeezed out from the ignorant workers.

Over the years since 1993, the supply of the main meal that comes mid-day, has turned out into a very profitable business, especially around EPZs and large industrial parks. There was a time the Katunayake EPZ had over 80,000 workers and supplying meals for that number everyday is no small business. By now there are established suppliers who work in tandem with factory managers, who also stand to gain from this business. Most suppliers don’t have kitchens large enough to cook meals for 2,000 or 3,000 persons at a time. In most instances, the work is outsourced to smaller caterers.

This requires profits to be shared at different levels, including the factory boss who decides where the meal order would go. Sharing profits in a business that has fluctuating prices, often increasing, is a difficult compromise, when the product price is not accordingly slapped. During the past decade one would know, prices of all essentials and common consumer items increased drastically. Added was the price of fuel and electricity. Yet the unit price of the mid-day meal could not be raised to match the market prices of materials purchased. Therefore what is usually compromised is the quality and at times the quantity too.

Such compromised quality go through all gates unchecked and unquestioned with an almost absent regulatory process. EPZs and industrial parks don’t have adequate staff to monitor and supervise large supplies coming from different suppliers. The BOI takes no interest in food supply, perhaps taking it as out of step with their role of winning investors. They therefore don’t develop their own occupational health and safety division that could take care of free meals as well. Nor has the health authorities in provincial councils and in the central government that controls all investments that come in.

The Labour Department has an Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) division led by a very qualified professional. This professional works with other non-governmental organisations in his personal capacity and leaves a question, if his interest is in conflict. This division nevertheless carried out a health survey for the ‘Industrial Safety Project of the Labour Department’ in 2009. The study revealed 63 per cent of the female workers in Katunayake FTZ suffer from anaemic conditions. Yet, there had been no survey to check the quality of food provided by companies. Nor were any mechanisms proposed to control and manage quality. In fact, there is no complaint mechanism in factories and any complaint to the manager, goes unanswered. They obviously are part of the business.

In an environment where workers are practically denied unionising, where the Labour Department and the BOI do not want to implement laws to the letter, food poisoning would grow into a major issue, unless authorities get back to their duty and responsibility in safeguarding the health of workers. One immediate way to have some control would therefore be to strengthen the public health sector in EPZs and have a special PHI for industries outside zones and parks and for the BOI to lay down guidelines to elect food committees in factories mandated to work with those health authorities. The issue of food poisoning of workers unfortunately has not even caught the attention of trade unions to demand answers. I doubt, the trade unions in the National Labour Advisory Committee (NLAC) have ever taken this issue for discussion, where the employers also sit as members. No wonder all places with authority have lost interest in the issue. So have the workers also.

(The writer is a freelance
consultant on labour issues)

New food poisoning incident  on Oct. 14

On Tuesday, October 14 at a factory in the Katunayake EPZ that manufactures computer accessories, over 140 workers were reported to have fallen sick with vomiting and purging in the night and in the morning on Wednesday 15 October, after consuming meals provided by the company management.

In a workforce of about 700, workers in the morning 06 am – 02 pm shift were reported to have developed severe bowel disorders after they signed off and left. They had resorted to their own medications. The 02 pm – 10 pm shift workers had also developed severe bowel disorders and about 30 workers, including four males were rushed to the Negombo district hospital in the night. Meanwhile, workers who returned for the next day morning 06 am – 02 pm shift had fallen sick again in large numbers and the company management had brought in 02 private medical doctors into the factory to treat the sick workers.

The union branch of the Free Trade Zones and General Services Employees’ Union claims over 130 such workers were treated in-house in the factory and were later sent to their lodgings. The management has not accepted the reason for a sudden ailment as food poisoning as water could be another factor. The Public Health Inspector had taken samples of food and would have to give his report to decide the reason, the company had told the union officials. The branch union also claims they established a “Food Committee” that provided food cooked in-house on a menu displayed weekly on the notice board. The management had stopped this service and had switched to procuring meals from two outside suppliers in Amandoluwa, a few months ago. They said complaints about meals had no effect, as the public health inspector who visits, is provided transport by the company management. Police meanwhile had recorded statements from the two suppliers of food. The company was closed on October 15 and most workers said they will not be able to report for work the next day as well.

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