Sri Lanka-headquartered Brandix is responding to allegations from human rights advocates and government agencies about its treatment of garment workers amid a surge in Covid cases at its factories.
As of last week, local media outlets reported that more than 2,120 coronavirus cases were linked to the company’s operations, including garment workers and their family members, comprising one-third of the country’s 7,150 total infections, which have resulted in 14 deaths. Worker rights groups said that Sri Lankan military officers removed workers from their residences in the middle of the night, forcibly transporting them to quarantine facilities.
On Tuesday, Sri Lankan attorney general Dappula de Livera called for an investigation into Brandix’s conduct, stemming from last week’s reports about the Covid outbreak and its subsequent handling. Livera has asked that Sri Lanka’s inspector general of police (IGP) file a progress report on its findings by Nov. 13.
“Brandix will extend its fullest support and cooperation to the Acting IGP throughout the investigation,” said Natasha Boralessa, director at the manufacturer of casual, sleep, lounge, active and intimate apparel, which employs more than 60,000. “Additionally, we are also conducting a comprehensive independent investigation of our facility to assess if there was a breach in our protocol and values.”
This week, Boralessa told Sourcing Journal that the company’s workers were “safely transported to hospitals or quarantine centers” following PCR testing across the entire workforce at its Minuwangoda factory.
“We know exactly where each of our employees and members of their household are,” she said. A 24-hour call center was established to ensure “constant connectivity” with affected team members, she added, and Brandix is committed to providing “a comfortable and safe stay” at each assigned location.
“Our team will continue to work round the clock for a smooth operation in the discharge of our team members,” she said, to ensure their safe return home. Brandix says it has collaborated with hospitals to support them with additional needed infrastructure to help manage the influx of patients from its factory, and a former company facility in Pinnawela has been converted to a quarantine center with 300 beds, managed by the Sri Lankan Army. Boralessa said that Brandix also continues to maintain another quarantine center in Punani, Batticaloa, that was set up earlier this year.
Seeking to clarify numbers reported by Sri Lankan media sources, Boralessa told Sourcing Journal that 1,063 workers at Brandix’s facility have tested positive for Covid. That number has been confirmed by the country’s Ministry of Health on Oct. 28, and does not include affected family members or close contacts.
As of Wednesday, 570 of the company’s employees had been declared Covid-free, she said, and released from 21 government regulated hospitals across the region. Meanwhile, 1,748 other staff and close contacts that have been staying in 30 quarantine centers have been allowed to return home.
“From the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak in March in Sri Lanka, a total of 19 related deaths have been reported by the health authorities,” Boralessa said. “I’d like to clarify that these deaths are not related to Brandix team members or close contacts impacted by the Minuwangoda Covid-19 outbreak.”
Refuting comments from joint secretary of the Free Trade Zone & General Services Employee Union, Anton Marcus, who condemned the company for using “forceful quarantine measures” and failing to put in place proper preventative measures to contain the spread of the virus, Boralessa insisted that Brandix maintains “strict health and safety protocols” across its 27 facilities.
“While there have been a few isolated incidents at our other locations where Covid-19 positive team members have been detected,” she said, “we have been able to contain the spread and ensure that our facilities continue operations.” Brandix, she added, has implemented occupational health and safety committees across its operations made up of factory leadership, a medical nurse, and representatives from service providers and each department in the plant, with meetings held monthly by the plant safety officer.
“The disease is new and evolving, and we are all learning of the efficacy of our processes,” Boralessa noted. “We are conducting an independent investigation to understand if there had been a lapse on the part of the Minuwangoda facility in following the standards mentioned, and will share these findings and take the necessary action in the event of violation.”
Boralessa says Brandix is committed to adhering to protocol and protecting its 85-percent female workforce, and has set up a support network to ensure the mental well-being of its employees. The program is designed to help workers’ children receive continued access to education and help care for workers who are recovering and returning home.