Sri Lanka govt urged to protect FTZ workers amid Covid surge

Leading Asian labour and human rights groups have appealed to the Sri Lanka government and factory owners to protect Free Trade Zone (FTZ) workers from Covid-19 amid a surge in infections.

“In line with its obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the Sri Lankan government should immediately take steps towards protecting the lives of the FTZ workers by implementing the demands and recommendations of labour organisations posed last month,” said the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) and its member organisation, Law and Society Trust (LST), in a statement.

Despite emerging clusters and national lockdowns since March 2020, FTZ workers have been working throughout the Covid-19 outbreak in Sri Lanka.

Media outlets reported Covid-19 clusters emerging in several FTZs, including Katunayake – the country’s largest FTZ where at least 50,000 employees have been infected.

On May 31, 2021, Sri Lankan labour organisations had issued a ‘desperate appeal’ addressed to the international community, explicitly calling on the government and factory owners to treat FTZ workers not just as essential service providers, but also as frontline workers who need protection.

The appeal reiterated the six primary demands the groups had earlier sent to the Minister of Labour and other relevant government officials, including the Minister of Health, State Minister of Primary Healthcare, Commissioner General of Labour and the Board of Investment.

The six demands include calls for widespread RT-PCR testing for workers, fast-tracking Covid-19 vaccination for all workers in the FTZ and ensuring that companies adhere to the Covid prevention guidelines.

“We call on the Sri Lankan government, as well as employers and factory owners, to immediately act on the demands detailed in the appeal,” it said.

“In the spirit of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the FORUM-ASIA also called on global brands and suppliers with factories in Sri Lanka to act with heightened human rights due diligence to identify and prevent adverse human rights impacts in their supply chains,” said Shamini Darshni Kaliemuthu, Executive Director of FORUM-ASIA.

As state-run quarantine centres reached full capacity, many FTZ workers who tested positive for Covid-19 and people they lived with were forced into mandatory quarantine in their respective hostels and boarding houses.

Most workers were put on forced leave, without receiving any relief ration from the government, and they have been largely ignored by most factory owners.

They were and still are dependent on assistance from CSOs, trade unions and well-wishers. Some factories have provided their workers with ration, which are shared among other workers living in their hostels.

However, many workers, particularly ‘manpower workers’ who are contracted through recruitment agencies, have not had work for months, and are particularly vulnerable and in need of urgent assistance.

Workers have been taken to quarantine centres, sometimes a long way off from where they reside and work, even to Northern Sri Lanka which is more than 300 km away. They have complained of squalid conditions, substandard food and a lack of medical attention.

“The government’s mismanagement has already caused too much suffering to FTZ workers, especially to the women workers. We have seen a highly militarised response to Covid-19 in Sri Lanka; this must change into a human-centric approach. In the workplaces, there must be a worker-centric approach, where the respect and protection of the human rights of the workers should guide business operations,” said Sakuntala Kadirgamar, Executive Director, Law and Society Trust.

FORUM-ASIA and 32 of its member organsiations stand in solidarity with the FTZ workers and trade unions. Even more so during the pandemic. State and non-state actors must uphold their obligations under the international treaty the country has ratified and ensure the protection and respect of human rights in the context of business operations as stipulated by the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

The six key demands put forward by the Sri Lankan labour organisations are listed below:

1. Shut down all factories for at least two weeks; provide paid leave, and carry out widespread PCR testing so as to make a proper assessment of the ongoing crisis. Based on these findings, informed decisions can be made, in consultation with workers, CSOs and trade unions.

2. Prioritise and fast-track Covid-19 vaccination for all workers in the FTZ and apparel supply chain, both in the western province and the rest of the country. This should include both regular/permanent and manpower workers. Set up awareness and vaccination centres at the health facilities near the zones, and at the gates of the different Free Trade Zones. Have a target of vaccinating all workers within a two-week period.

3. Immediately take measures to trace, isolate and transport workers who test positive, and their first contacts, to quarantine centres. The workers should be informed of the Covid-19 infection situation at their respective factories on a daily basis.

4. Workers who are forced into quarantine centres or self-isolation due to being exposed to Covid-19 at their workplace, on the way to work, or at their boarding house, must be given full pay for quarantine days, and no reduction in attendance bonus and other related incentives. Any quarantine related expenses must be reimbursed by the factory owners to the workers.

5. Ensure that the Rs 5,000 monthly relief ration pack/allowance, promised by the government, is distributed to all the workers, irrespective of election lists.

6. Ensure that all factories strictly adhere to the health and safety guidelines. These include regular checking of workers’ temperature; workspace and machinery lay-out to ensure that the recommended distance between workers is maintained; regular sanitising of machines, surfaces and raw materials; provision of PPE for all workers, and facilities to wash and sanitise hands regularly, among others.