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Inside Sri Lanka’s ‘Historic’ Garment Worker-Rights Agreement

Sri Lanka’s garment industry is celebrating a “historic” new union-employer agreement that labor campaigners say addresses vital human-rights issues for hundreds of thousands of workers.

Forged between the South Asian country’s worker unions and the Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF), an employer trade group, the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) lays out for the first time joint support for “fundamental steps” toward improving working conditions amid the Covid-19 pandemic, including the establishment of employer-employee health committees, assurances about the freedom to organize and a dispute-resolution mechanism.

“This is the first time an industrial sector is represented in a bipartite agreement with worker representatives,” a joint statement of the signatory unions, including Free Trade Zones & General Service Employees, noted Tuesday.

The MOU “formalizes” cooperation between workers and employers, “laying the foundation” for future cooperation, said Tuli Cooray, secretary-general at JAAF.

“Collaborations between the employers and trade unions have been critical in elevating Sri Lanka’s human resource practices above many of its peers in the sector and in ensuring business continuity following the pandemic,” Cooray said in a statement. “The protection of employees and their wellbeing is a foremost priority of both the industry and the trade unions; our interests are strongly aligned.”

By enshrining key “asks” by union leaders, the deal “goes a long way” to redress the long-standing power imbalance pitting factory owners against workers, Ineke Zeldenrust, international coordinator at the Clean Clothes Campaign, the garment industry’s largest consortium of labor unions and nonprofits, said in a statement.

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The organization and others have been lobbying for such an agreement for some time. In March, the Clean Clothes Campaign, AFL-CIO, Labour Behind the Label, Workers United, Maquila Solidarity Network, War on Want and United Students Against Sweatshop criticized Sri Lanka’s garment manufacturers for using the pandemic as a “pretext” to suppress worker rights, including retaliating against union leaders and failing to pay wages in full. Although major brands such as Asos, Gap and Levi Strauss source from Sri Lanka, the “deteriorating worker rights situation in the country has been largely ignored by the international community,” they wrote.

Apparel, Sri Lanka’s No. 1 export, accounts for roughly 7 percent of the nation’s $84 billion economy. Half of Sri Lanka’s 300,000 garment workers are employed by Brandix, Hirdaramani Group and MAS Holdings, three of the world’s largest apparel manufacturers.

“As a founder member of JAAF, we are happy with the signing of the groundbreaking agreement with the garment worker unions of Sri Lanka and look forward to a collaborative relationship that would mutually benefit all stakeholders and facilitate the development of the apparel industry,” Natasha Boralessa, director of Brandix, told Sourcing Journal.

In October last year, Brandix was linked to one of Sri Lanka’s largest coronavirus outbreaks, which labor campaigners blamed on a lack of proper preventive measures, including worker-led health committees that could have sounded the alarm at an earlier stage. Boralessa said at the time that Brandix maintained “strict health and safety protocols” across its 27 locations.

Felix Fernando, an executive member of JAAF and group director of lingerie specialist Omega Line, said he hopes the deal will mark a “new beginning in the Sri Lankan apparel sector with regards to having a healthy dialogue with the unions in addressing the areas covered under the MOU.”

“I have noted a greater understanding and respect from most of the union representatives on this initiative and hope the signing of the MOU will further enhance the relationship between unions and JAAF in helping the apparel sector and its employees to contribute to a better future,” he told Sourcing Journal.

While the agreement, in the interest of expediting action, doesn’t yet tackle the more complex issues of systematic underpayment of wages, unions and employers reached an understanding to work collaboratively to address the issue of wage loss during the health crisis, Zeldenrust noted.

Workers, she said, do not profit from the growing export rates of Sri Lanka’s industry and continue to pocket poverty wages.

“This must most urgently be addressed, both with factory owners and with major brands and retailers that source from Sri Lanka, whose power over prices paid for products and whether to pay for or cancel orders or even take up their business to another country, are crucial factors in wage development in a country like Sri Lanka,” she said. “We hope for a timely and transparent solution to make workers whole that also includes brands and retailers taking responsibility to settle the problem of lost wages.”