• Unions claim factories more concerned with export targets than workers’ health, demand priority in vaccination program
  • PHI say garment factories are no-go areas for them; no way to monitor compliance with sanitary guidelines in factories; northern workers complain of intimidation by security forces
  • Labor officials deny irregularities at factories, but minister has yet to receive a report on why hundreds of garment factory workers have become vulnerable to the virus
  • Factories continued to operate to ensure export orders were delivered on time

As clothing factories are stigmatized as hot spots for Covid-19 despite their contribution to the country’s coffers, unions have demanded the government give workers in the garment industry the same priority given to health workers first line in the immunization program.

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

Plant officials say the new measures also include setting up intermediate care centers to isolate and treat workers as soon as they test positive for Covid-19. But unions and public health inspectors tell a different story.

Eight unions have collectively urged the government to ensure that workers receive their wages and other allowances on time, even when quarantined.

The unions that have made the appeal include the Trade and Industry Workers Union, Dabindu Collective Sri Lanka (Katunayake), National Union of Metalworkers and Migrants in Sri Lanka, Sramabimani Kendraya (Seeduwa), the Standup Movement Lanka (Katunayake) and the Textile and Clothing Workers Union.

Meanwhile, the Union of Public Health Inspectors (PHIU) alleges health officials have no way of monitoring management’s response to the pandemic as they do not have access to factories or their centers intermediate care.

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 centers, a Kilinochchi PHI said under the guise of anonymity.

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

Last week, in the remote village of Kiranchi in Kilinochchi, a group of workers from a garment factory 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 return home.

The next day, a man and his three children staged a sit-in outside a factory in the town of Kilinochchi, alleging that management failed to send his wife, a factory worker, for treatment after being tested. positive.

As workers are reluctant to report to work due to alleged non-compliance with Covid-19 guidelines by management, some reports indicate they are being forced to report to work as a result of intimidation from police and security forces, as allegedly happened in Maruthankerny in Vadamarachchi East.

It is alleged that security force personnel told workers in Maruthankerny that if they did not show up for work, they would not be entitled to any compensation from the company or other benefits. Security forces then escorted the workers to the factory.

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

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

A company spokesperson said: “During the ongoing third wave of Covid-19, we noticed that the number of employees testing positive was increasing directly in line with the number of tests performed at some factories. Following recent developments at the Thulhiriya facility, MAS consulted with the Director General of Health Services to determine the recommended course of action in such situations as well as the level of testing to be performed at our factories during Wave 3. In progress. “

Last Monday, when tests were carried out on 1,500 workers at a garment factory in Puthukudiyiruppu, 261 came back positive. The region’s medical officer of health said he had previously recommended that the plant be closed after a few cases were detected there, but management kept it open due to political influence until a large number of workers are affected.

Another clothing factory in Kesbewa was closed last week after more than 100 employees were found to have contracted the virus. The PHI region said rapid antigen testing was carried out after some workers showed symptoms of the disease.

The unions allege that in most garment factories management has not prioritized workers’ health. In most factories there is no provision for regular testing; nor are there proper quarantine facilities for those who have contracted the virus and their close contacts, despite the industry being one of the country’s main sources of foreign exchange.

Anton Marcus, co-secretary of the Trade Union of Free Zones and General Service Employees, said the government was turning a blind eye to the welfare of workers in the garment sector.

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

Meanwhile, in the Katunayake Free Zone, it is alleged that hundreds of workers who came into contact with grieving workers were ordered to self-quarantine in their overcrowded neighborhoods. The workers say they have no choice but to accept these orders because it is with their wages that they must provide for their families.

Since the clothing sector was a key part of the country’s export trade, its employees are allowed to go to work during travel restrictions, provided they adhere to the “bio-bubble” system, which is which means they don’t come into contact with strangers while being transported to and from factories.

Clothing exports increased 49% to $ 462.38 million in the year ending April 2021, from $ 299 million the year before, according to the Export Development Board of Sri Lanka.

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

During the meeting, it emerged that factories should remain open in accordance with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s directive, and therefore district-level authorities may take measures other than closing factories to control the spread of the virus. These measures may include isolating affected workers.

Following hundreds of workers in the garment industry contracting Covid-19, Labor Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva previously asked the labor commissioner to conduct an investigation to determine the causes and whether the Covid-19 health committees recommended had been created in the garment. factories.

This week, the labor commissioner-general said investigations showed there had been no irregularities such as those alleged by unions, and in many factories management had implemented the necessary guidelines. , in particular the establishment of health committees.

“Following our investigations, we authorized the resumption of operations at the plant. We have not received any complaints from management neglecting workers’ health or failing to comply with Covid-19 guidelines, ”said Commissioner General BK Prabath Chandrakeerthi. the Sunday Times.

After the Covid-19 epidemic at the Brandix plant last year with more than 1,000 workers tested positive, the Covid-19 working group made it compulsory to set up health committees to ensure a healthy environment. healthy work.

The Ministry of Labor has requested a report from the Ministry of Labor on how large numbers of workers in the garment sector have been affected by the virus, but this report has not yet been submitted. the Sunday Times learn.

“The government should allow local health authorities to make decisions on workers’ health issues rather than leaving the decision-making process to factory management whose main concern is to meet the deadline at all costs,” he said. noted union leader Marcus.

MAS explains the procedure followed when workers test positive

Along with other members of the garment industry, leading clothing company MAS Holdings said it has repeatedly made representations to the government on the need to prioritize the vaccination program for workers in the industry. of the garment.

“Based on the availability of vaccines and the severity of the spread of Covid-19 in some high-risk regions, vaccination campaigns led by the Ministry of Health have already started in some places, based on priorities comprehensive immunizations established by the government, “the company said.

Responding to the Sunday Times’ Questions about the upsurge in covid cases at some of MAS’s factories, the company said employees who either test positive for Covid-19 or are identified as close contacts are urged to self-isolate and be granted time off medical for this period without any deduction in their salaries or attendance allowances.

“At no time are employees who test positive are brought to work and all those who test positive are isolated in hospitals or health centers for 10 days, spend four days in home quarantine and return to work. on the 15th day, as directed by the government, ”the company said.

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