As garment workers across Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are forced to work in precarious conditions during the pandemic, over 50 labour advocacy groups have called on the governments of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka to protect workers.
The joint statement warns that “Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi workers must choose between death and destitution”.
Sri Lanka is home to the largest garment manufacturers in the world with the industry accounting for approximately half the country’s exports and employing 15% of the country’s workforce. Responding to the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, both countries excluded garment workers from lockdown measures by categorizing them as essential workers. This has forced them to work in crowded factories where the virus can easily spread.
The joint statement further criticises both governments’s noting their “failure to prioritize worker health and safety forces workers to choose between going into a factory without access to necessary PPE, with inadequate social distancing, and with minimal testing and vaccination or to face financial ruin without income or social benefits”.
In Sri Lanka, the country’s COVID-19 response has been overseen by the military-led by the notorious army commander Shavendra Silva.
This military’s handling of the pandemic has been seen to not only exacerbate ethnic tensions but has also seen the harassment and intimidation of garment workers, the majority of which are women.
In October 2020, representatives of the Free Trade Zone (FTZ) factory workers filed a complaint with Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka accusing the military of “cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment” against 98 factory workers in the Brandix factory.
In June 2021, Sri Lankan police have arrested ten people, including the provincial council’s deputy chairman for Puthukkudiyiruppu, Mullaitivu, following protests against the reopening of a garment factory amidst rising COVID cases.
Commenting on the garment industry, Dr Ruwanpura at the University of Gothenburg, noted
“The apparel sector needs to start thinking about what [a militarized regime] means for claims around ethicality,” Dr Ruwanpura concludes. “Everybody accepts Myanmar is militarized, but they are not realizing what is happening in Sri Lanka.”
The joint statement comes in advance of the EU's review of its favourable trading agreement with Sri Lanka, GSP+. It is predicated on Sri Lanka's commitment to human rights and international labour rights. In June the EU passed a resolution calling on the council to repeal GSP+ noting the deteriorating human rights conditions on the island.
Demands from Unions
In their statement, the organisations maintained the need to include garment industry workers in lockdowns so that they aren’t forced to work in precarious conditions and to expand vaccination and testing of workers. They further called for adequate personal protective equipment, to abide by international workers rights standards, and ensure that workers who are absent from work due to COVID-19 restrictions are able to receive their full wages. They further maintained the need for workers to be able to voluntarily refuse unsafe work.
This they noted would require the government to expand its vaccination and testing efforts. It would require apparel brands to lead times on orders to allow for a reduction in the workforce. And it would require factory owners to abide by all new health mandates.
Read the full joint statement here.