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Sri Lanka’s Biggest Garment Maker Dismisses ‘Inflammatory’ Accusations

Labor campaigners are accusing Sri Lanka’s largest garment exporter of intimidating and harassing workers and union leaders after they blamed the company for mismanaging the pandemic’s second wave, resulting in a “superspreader event” in a free trade zone outside of Colombo that sickened thousands.

Citing interviews with unions, workers’ rights organizations and more than a dozen workers, the Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA) and the Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum (GLJ-ILRF) said in a report that Brandix’s “clear violations” of Covid-19 protocols in Sept. 2020 were responsible for an outbreak at a Minuwangoda factory that spawned half of the South Asian nation’s recorded cases in a matter of weeks.

Workers told investigators that Brandix held a concert on Sept. 25—a week before the first worker at the Minuwangoda plant tested positive for Covid-19—to celebrate the shipment of a large order. No social distancing was put in place in contravention of Ministry of Health recommendations, they said. Workers at three separate Brandix facilities, including at Minuwangoda—the manufacturer operates 27 altogether—said that Brandix management had stopped following coronavirus guidelines at the time of the outbreak, including enforcing physical distancing in canteens.

Minuwangoda workers also complained to local media at the time that Brandix refused to allow workers who reported Covid-19 symptoms to isolate and rest, another infringement of Sri Lanka’s health regulations. In October of that year, workers said that they were required to continue working even if they had a fever.

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After Sri Lanka’s militarization of its Covid-19 response, workers were forcibly rounded up for quarantine on the regular, they said. Members of the Sri Lanka Army would enter their dorm rooms unannounced and in the middle of the night, giving them no time to gather their belongings or inform family members where they were going.

Brandix dismissed the allegations as “untrue and unfounded,” pointing to two separate government investigations that didn’t uncover evidence that the factory “had in any way” contributed to the spread of infection.

“In other words, there is clearly no basis for the allegations made in the report,” a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal. “It is unfortunate that AFWA chose to put out a report on ‘issues’ that have long since been settled or resolved. The content in the report is inaccurate and replete with falsehoods. The report sullies a reputation for ethical behavior, created and nurtured over the years by Brandix, without offering any credible evidence beyond alleged statements made by a few workers, who are apparently unidentified for confidentiality reasons.”

Sri Lanka’s army has previously denied that it mistreated workers who were sent to its quarantine centers.

“In full compliance with laid down strategic guidelines, once a need to move any close contact of a positive affectee arises, troops, engaged in Covid-19 preventive tasks inform all of them by phone well in advance and request them to be ready ahead of such preventive evacuations, but in many instances, these evacuees, even after [the] arrival of the troops, do take more time for preparations before they board the buses but such instances are politely tolerated and managed,” Commander Lt Gen Shavendra Silva said at the time.

Denied ‘their fundamental rights’

The AFWA and the GLJ-ILRF said that unions such as Dabindu Collective, RED and Stand Up Workers Union, which spoke out against the alleged military abuses and sought accountability from Brandix, were smeared on TV and social media, had their homes and offices searched by police and threatened with arrest. In a Dec. 2020 meeting with Brandix CEO Ashroff Omar, Omar reportedly warned attendees that he would not allow unionization at his factories.

“This statement is untrue,” the Brandix spokesperson said. “The report makes specious use of this statement to suggest complicity between the government, the military and Brandix in ‘intimidating’ unions and workers with reprisals, which is blatantly false. This is inflammatory rhetoric, not evidence of the accusations in the report.”

But if Brandix had given unions access to its facilities, they would have been able to monitor the supplier’s compliance with Covid-19 requirements—and the Minuwangoda factory’s outbreak “may never have happened,” union leaders said. They said unions are being pressured to stay silent and that Brandix’s actions have exacerbated the abuse and harassment of its mostly female workers who are being denied “their fundamental rights.” The manufacturer, which makes clothing for U.S. and European retailers such as Gap Inc., Victoria’s Secret and Marks & Spencer, employs more than 35,000 workers across Sri Lanka.

In a third-party assessment of Brandix’s labor practices at three sample facilities in 2021, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) concluded that while there was no recognized external trade union in the company, its policy of freedom of association “enables the employees to join an external union, should they wish to.”

Dabindu Collective, RED and Stand Up Workers Union had written to the IFC that March about its proposed $50 million long-term loan to Brandix, arguing that the manufacturer didn’t comply with the World Bank arm’s policy on labor rights. This, they said, caused further friction with Omar and intensified their harassment. (Claims that Brandix escalated reprisals are also untrue, the Brandix spokesperson said.)

The report calls on the government of Sri Lanka, which is facing the nation’s worst financial crisis in decades, and Brandix to respect freedom of association and engage in dialogue with women-led trade unions. Apparel is the country’s No. 1 export, accounting for roughly 6 percent of its $81 billion economy.

“This report illustrates that freedom of association for trade unions and workers organizations is critical to making sure that working people’s voices are heard in Sri Lanka’s garment industry,” the AFWA and the GLJ-ILRF said. “When trade unions and workers organizations can exercise freedom of association, they help ensure that workers can speak up when garment factories do not follow the law and that workers have a collective voice in factories and in society to represent working peoples’ interests. These roles are essential to creating inclusive growth that benefits all.”