Trade unions allege factories are concerned more with their export targets than with workers’ health, demand priority be given to them in vaccination programme   PHIs say garment factories are no-go zones for them; no way of monitoring adherence to health guidelines within factories; northern workers complain of intimidation by security forces   Labour officials deny irregularities [...]


Garment workers in the claws of Covid-19 virus


  • Trade unions allege factories are concerned more with their export targets than with workers’ health, demand priority be given to them in vaccination programme  
  • PHIs say garment factories are no-go zones for them; no way of monitoring adherence to health guidelines within factories; northern workers complain of intimidation by security forces  
  • Labour officials deny irregularities in factories, but minister yet to receive report on why hundreds of garment factory workers have become vulnerable to the virus  
  • Factories kept running to ensure that export orders are delivered on time

As apparel factories are stigmatised as hotspots for Covid-19 despite their contribution to the country’s coffers, trade unions have demanded that the Government give garment industry workers the same priority given to frontline health workers in the vaccination programme.

To ensure that export orders are delivered on time, managements keep factories running. Employees are called in to work in batches under a new ‘shift basis’ which, management says, is aimed at preventing the spread of Covid-19.

Factory officials claim the new measures also include the setting up of intermediate care centres to isolate and treat workers as soon as they are test positive for Covid-19. But trade unions and public health inspectors tell a different story.

Eight trade unions have collectively urged the Government to ensure that workers are paid their salaries and other allowances on time even when they undergo quarantine.

Trade unions which made this call include the Commercial and Industrial Workers Union, the Dabindu Collective Sri Lanka (Katunayake), the National Union of Metal and Migrant Workers in Sri Lanka, Sramabimani Kendraya (Seeduwa), the Standup Movement Lanka (Katunayake) and the Textile Garment and Clothing Workers Union.

Meanwhile, the Public Health Inspectors’ Union (PHIU) alleges that health officials have no way of monitoring the management’s pandemic response as they have no access to the factories or their intermediate care centres.

Area PHIs and health officials are not allowed to enter these premises to check how workers were tested and what facilities were available at intermediate care centres, a Kilinochchi PHI said on condition of anonymity.

With the number of Covid-19 cases increasing in the north, villagers are discouraging apparel factory workers from going to work, fearing a community spread.

Last week, in the remote village of Kiranchi in Kilinochchi, a group of apparel factory workers were prevented from boarding the factory bus that had come in the morning to take them to the factory. The workers were then forced to go home.

The next day, a man and his three children staged a sit-in outside a factory in Kilinochchi town, alleging that the management had not sent his wife, a factory employee, for treatment after she tested positive.

As workers show reluctance to report to work in view of alleged poor compliance with Covid-19 guidelines by the management, some reports say they are forced to go to work following intimidation by police and security forces, as had allegedly happened at Maruthankerny in Vadamarachchi East.

It is alleged that security forces personnel had told the Maruthankerny workers that if they failed to report to work, they would not be eligible for any company allowances and other benefits. The security forces then escorted the workers to the factory.

“Our family members are under tremendous pressure to work in these difficult times at high health risks. Now they are forced to work under Police and Army intimidation just because these are companies owned by southerners,” a Vadamarchchi resident said.

Last week, the Thulhiriya factory of the garment giant MAS was shut down after the detection of 380 Covid-19 cases. Some 1,505 employees tested negative. The factory resumed operations this week with Labour Ministry approval.

A company spokesperson said: “During the ongoing third wave of Covid-19, we have noticed the number of employees testing positive increases directly in line with the number of tests conducted at certain plants. After the recent developments at the Thulhiriya facility, MAS consulted the Director-General of Health Services to determine the recommended way forward in such situations as well as the level of testing that is to be carried out at our plants during the ongoing third wave.”

Last Monday, when tests were conducted on 1,500 workers at a Puthukudiyiruppu garment factory, 261 tested positive. The area Medical Officer of Health (MoH) said he had earlier recommended that the factory be closed down after a few cases were detected there, but the management kept it open due to political influence until a large number of workers were afflicted.

Another apparel factory at Kesbewa was shut down last week after more than 100 employees were found to have contracted the virus. The area PHI said rapid antigen tests were carried out after some workers showed symptoms of the illness.

Trade unions allege that in most garment factories, the management has failed to give priority to the workers’ health. In most factories, there are no arrangements to conduct regular tests; nor are there proper quarantine facilities for those who contracted the virus and their close contacts despite the industry being one of the country’s top foreign exchange earners.

Anton Marcus, Joint Secretary of the Free Trade Zones and General Services Employees Union, said the Government was turning a blind eye to garment sector workers’ welfare.

“The setting up of Covid-19 health committees comprising both the management and the workers is a must in all factories, but of the more than 300 factories, only three have set up such committees so far. Even in these cases, it was the management which chose the workers’ representatives and not the trade unions,” Mr Marcus said.

Meanwhile, at the Katunayake FTZ, it is alleged that hundreds of workers who have come into contact with afflicted workers have been told to self-quarantine in their crowded quarters. Workers say they have no option but to put up with these orders as it is with their salaries that they have to support their families.

Since the garment sector was a key component of the country’s export trade, its employees are allowed to go to work during the travel restrictions, provided they adhered to the ‘bio-bubble’ system — meaning they do not come into contact with outsiders while they are transported to and from factories.

Apparel exports grew 49 percent to USD 462.38 million during the year ending April 2021, compared to the previous year’s USD 299 million, according to Sri Lanka’s Export Development Board.

On Wednesday, Minister Douglas Devananda had an urgent meeting with northern health authorities via a conference call to discuss measures to contain the spread of the virus in north.

At the meeting it had transpired that factories should be kept open in keeping with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s directive, and therefore, district level authorities could take measures other than closing down the factories to control the spread of the virus. Such measures may include isolating afflicted workers.

In the wake of hundreds of apparel industry workers contracting Covid-19, Labour Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva had earlier instructed the Labour Commissioner to carry out an investigation to find out the causes and whether the recommended Covid-19 health committees had been established in garment factories.

This week, the Labour Commissioner General said investigations showed there were no such irregularities as alleged by trade unions, and in many factories, the management had implemented the necessary guidelines including the setting up of health committees.

“Following our investigations, we granted approval to resume factory operations. We haven’t received any complaints of the management neglecting the health of workers or failure to adhere to Covid-19 guidelines,” Commissioner General B K Prabath Chandrakeerthi told the Sunday Times.  

After the Covid-19 outbreak at the Brandix factory last year with more than 1,000 workers testing positive, the Covid-19 Task Force made it mandatory to set up health committees to ensure a healthy working environment.

The Labour Ministry called for a report from the Department of Labour as to how a large number of apparel sector workers came to be afflicted by the virus, but this report has not been submitted yet, the Sunday Times learns.

“The Government should allow the local health authorities to take decisions on the health concerns of the workers rather than leaving the decision making process to the factory management whose primary concern is to meet the deadline target at any cost,” trade union leader Marcus noted.

MAS explains procedure followed when workers test positive

Along with the other members in the apparel industry, the leading apparel company MAS Holdings said it had repeatedly made representations to the Government on the need to prioritise the vaccination programme for apparel industry workers.

“Based on the availability of vaccines and the severity of the spread of Covid-19 in some high-risk regions, vaccination drives conducted by the Ministry of Health have already commenced in certain locations, based on the overall vaccination priorities established by the Government,” the company said.

Responding to the Sunday Times’ questions on the upsurge of covid cases in some of the MAS factories, the company said employees who either test positive for Covid-19 or are identified as close contacts are requested to self-isolate and granted medical leave for this period without any deduction in their salaries or attendance allowances.

“At no time are any employees who test positive brought into work and all those who test positive are in isolation at hospitals or care centres for 10 days, spend four days in-home quarantine, and return to work on the 15th day, as per the government guidelines,” the company said.

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