Labor advocates are urging brands and employers in the Sri Lankan garment sector to engage with unions to safeguard the rights, wages and health and safety of its 300,000 workers, who are facing unprecedented economic precarity as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Even as brands continue to rake in profits, factory owners in the South Asian nation are using the pandemic as a “pretext” to cut costs and roll back hard-won workers rights, according to a joint brief by labor organizations AFL-CIO, the Clean Clothes Campaign, Labour Behind the Label, Workers United, Maquila Solidarity Network, War on Want and United Students Against Sweatshops.
The fallout of this has been the non-payment of full, regular wages, retaliatory attacks on union members and several Covid-19 outbreaks that have led to “new infection waves in the country at large,” they said. Garment manufacturers, the groups added, further inflamed the humanitarian crisis by failing to comply with a tripartite agreement between trade unions, the Employers’ Federation of Ceylon and the Ministry of Skills Development, Employment and Labour Relations ensuring wages and employment despite any lockdown measures.
Apparel is Sri Lanka’s No. 1 export, accounting for roughly 7 percent of its $84 billion economy. Half of the country’s garment workers are employed by three of the world’s largest textile manufacturers—Brandix, MAS Holdings and Hirdaramani Group—which own dozens of factories each. Yet despite making clothes for brands such as Amazon, Gap Inc., Levi Strauss, Marks & Spencer, Nike, Patagonia and Calvin Klein owner PVH Corp., the “deteriorating” workers’ rights situation has been “largely ignored by the international community,” the organizations said.
“The brief is urging brands producing in Sri Lanka to encourage a worker-centered and industry-wide solution, reached through labor-management dialogue with the aim to resolve the industry problems and reform the industry’s practices,” the groups said. “Unfortunately, with few exceptions, brand responses to a draft version of this brief have been discouraging, and very little progress has been made.”
This is “in line with a general lack of supply chain responsibility” in the garment sector during the pandemic, they said.
“Instead of monitoring how workers in their supply chains were treated during this crisis, brands and retailers resorted to canceling orders, delaying payments, further pushing down already low prices,” the organizations said. “Instead of pushing their suppliers to uphold workers’ rights during these challenging times, brands and retailers turned their back on manufacturers, leaving them free to trample worker rights and benefits at a time when they are most desperately needed.”
While brands, when asked about their duty of care to garment workers, often point to their involvement in multi-stakeholder schemes such as the International Labour Organization’s Call to Action or the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Memorandum of Understanding, activists say that tangible and meaningful financial support is still lacking.
The monthly minimum wage in Sri Lanka, they note, is 13,500 Sri Lankan rupees ($67.86), which is “far below what is needed to survive,” meaning that workers often have to take on overtime and skip meals to meet production targets and earn what “is still a poverty wage.” During the pandemic, many workers are receiving even less, making it harder to put food on the table or send children to school.
Meanwhile, advocates say, the Joint Apparel Association Forum Sri Lanka (JAAF), a trade group for factory owners, “actively fights workers’ right to in turn represent [its] own interests,” resulting in just one collective bargaining agreement in a sector that represents 40 percent of the country’s exports. (That unionized factory, however, is also set to close.)
“Employers have during the pandemic used various tactics to push employees out of employment, often without paying legally entitled compensations, and are arguing that they cannot pay full wages and bonuses, even though they are massive companies,” Anton Marcus, joint secretary of the Free Trade Zones and General Services Employees Union in Sri Lanka, said in a statement.
“Brands and suppliers must take responsibility for the workers in their supply chain,” Marcus added. “In Sri Lanka, this should start with a national dialogue between manufacturer association JAAF and unions; an invitation we have extended many times, but which JAAF has thus far ignored.”
A spokesperson for the Hirdaramani Group told Sourcing Journal that it forwarded the brief to JAAF and was told that the organization will be meeting with labor representatives to address their concerns. The Hirdaramani Group declined to comment further until after the meeting.
Brandix says it gave workers a bonus in December, paid salary increases in January and provided reimbursements for “salary revisions made during the height of the pandemic last year.” As a result, a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal, “none of our employees lost their income.”
The company also noted that it has adhered to an agreement, made at a task force meeting in November, to allow bipartite health committees consisting of employers and employees to ensure the implementation of health guidelines issued by the Ministry of Health.
“Across all Brandix factories, we have a dedicated plant [occupational health and safety] committee which has a 40-to-60 split between management and factory associates,” the spokesperson said. “This predates the task force and has always been a part of our standard operating procedure. The committee includes a medical nurse, representatives of service providers and representatives from each department.”
Although not unionized, Brandix’s plants, it says, have employee councils staffed by members elected by employees and comprising 70 percent women. “It is a legalized body approved by applicable government authorities, promoting the rights of employees and involves the participation of employees in decision-making on matters that impact them including labor management,” the spokesperson said.
Brandix also says it believes the rapid spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, at one of its facilities last year, was due to the “the high transmissibility” of the new strain in Sri Lanka, “as opposed to the strain that spread in the country earlier in 2020.”
“Another reason why the virus spread undetected was that over 90 percent of our employees who tested positive were asymptomatic,” the spokesperson added.
MAS Holdings and JAAF did not respond to requests for comments.
Editor’s note: The story was updated on April 1, 2021, with statements from Brandix.