Labor unions have criticized the harsh treatment of garment workers in Sri Lanka after authorities allegedly “herded” them off into quarantine in the middle of the night following a sudden surge in positive Covid-19 cases—the South Asian nation’s largest outbreak—at a Brandix-owned factory in Minuwangoda, Gampaha.
As of Oct. 19, more than 2,120 infections can be traced to the factory, including a thousand Brandix workers, their family members and close contacts, local media reports. The cluster comprises one-third of the total number of Covid-19 cases in Sri Lanka, which surpassed 7,150 on Friday, including 14 deaths.
Worker-rights groups say that the Sri Lanka Army, which helps manage the country’s coronavirus response, entered garment workers’ dorms last Monday night, without prior notice, and instructed them to immediately move to the quarantine centers it runs. The workers, they add, were given no time to prepare or gather their belongings. Neither were they allowed the opportunity to inform family members about what was happening.
“The military came in the middle of the night and gave us only ten minutes to pack our essentials and get onto the bus,” a worker from Kalutara told the nonprofit War on Want. “The military told us not to delay them, because they had been having sleepless nights and were very tired. We had no time to check. I had just received my negative PCR test [a diagnostic test that detects the virus] two days ago. I wasn’t even given the chance to tell them this. They didn’t allow anyone to speak! They just herded us into buses and took us away.”
Anton Marcus, joint secretary of the Free Trade Zone & General Services Employees union, condemned the “forceful quarantine measures” while pinning the blame for the outbreak on Brandix, Sri Lanka’s largest apparel exporter, for not putting the proper preventive measures in place.
“Had the factories formed health committees as decided by the tripartite taskforce, the health problems would have been identified earlier and this crisis could have been avoided,” Marcus said in a statement. “It is imperative that health committees are immediately formed in every garment factory.”
Sri Lanka’s quarantine centers, he noted, lack safety measures, basic sanitary facilities, qualified health staff and access to nutritious food, increasing the likelihood of infection among the quarantined workers. Family members of the quarantined workers have been completely shut out, and even local government officials lacked information.
“The forceful quarantine measures must stop and workers need to be treated with dignity,” Marcus said. “We appeal to the government to provide job security for the workers, income assurance as well as health and safety while ensuring that the crisis does not damage the industry as well.”
Brandix, which produces for U.S. and European retailers such as Gap, Victoria’s Secret and Marks & Spencer, employs roughly 50,000 workers at different facilities across Sri Lanka.
Brandix did not immediately respond to a request for comment, though the company said in a previous public statement that it will “rally together to care for the affected employees and their families, whilst endeavoring to minimize the impact on our communities and our nation in a collective effort to emerge from this crisis.”
Workers’ organizations have written to the Sri Lankan Department of Labour, citing concerns about the “risk of the virus spreading to other factories within the Brandix chain because human resources officers and management level officials travel to other branches on a weekly basis.”
“We are deeply concerned over the harsh quarantine measures and its impact on workers and their families,” Apoorva Kaiwar, regional secretary of IndustriAll Global Union, said. “The government of Sri Lanka should follow established international norms to control the pandemic while respecting patients’ rights. The government and employer should note that most of the patients of Minuwangoda Brandix cluster are women workers and ensure appropriate health safety measures are provided to them.”