Brunch recently hosted a discussion with Law and Society Trust Project Co-ordinator and Researcher Natasha Van-Hoff and Researcher and Writer Amalini De Sayrah on the challenges faced by Free Trade Zone (FTZ) workers during Covid-19. They explored questions like why these workers are dehumanised, how the pandemic has further deteriorated their already tedious living and working conditions, and what can we do as a society to change the mindset we have about the humans beyond the fence.
We spoke further to both Van-Hoff and De Sayrah to learn more about this issue.
Starting off, Van-Hoff stated that factories, as well as brands, have a responsibility towards their workers, specifically during this time, because there are so many workers being testing positive, and in that sense, they have to fulfil that responsibility if, for instance, a worker tested positive, and their pay or leave is deducted for the days they spent in quarantine which is very inhumane because Covid is a pandemic. “Covid is not something that the workers get willingly. Because the apparel sector is now declared essential and because they’re working at full capacity, while all the other sectors are not, they are more prone to Covid and should not have their pay or leave deducted.”
Another thing that she noted needs to change is the living conditions of these workers. “I personally believe it needs to be regulated. Workers have basic sanitary in the buildings they live in with bare minimum requirements, not even proper toilets.” These women will come up to a better standard in life if their boarding owners think about the workers’ livelihoods. Talking about the financial aspect of these boardings, Van-Hoff commented: “For now, the rough boarding rent is Rs. 4,000-6,000. It is Rs. 6,000 if there is a shower in the boarding complex, and it’s not even a proper shower, just a showerhead. If you want an attached bathroom, the rent goes up to Rs. 10,000-15,000, which is impossible for them to afford.”
Around the Katunayake Zone especially, they explained that water sanitation is a huge issue because most of the boardings have either a pipe well or a well, and their drainage system is not good so the water gets contaminated. This clearly shows us that these workers are not being treated as humans at all, and change needs to happen fast.
One good thing is that some companies have taken their workers to get vaccinated, but the whole industry needs to get vaccinated as there are 80 factories in the industry, otherwise you are allowing the pandemic to spread. With this, we can see that some progress is being made but it is not nearly at a fast enough rate. Both Van-Hoff and De Sayrah stated that change needs to be made now.
They both spoke about the dehumanising treatment towards the community at large as well. “There is a mentality attached to garment workers that needs to be changed, and progress needs to happen.
This mentality puts these workers in a place where society believe that they don’t deserve rights,” added Van-Hoff.
They also highlighted the importance of factories recognising unions, because as Van-Hoff described: “Specifically, last year, when there were so many workers being laid off, when there were payment deductions, the workers didn’t have a place to go and talk to and didn’t have a body or group where they can protest against it to the factory.” They explained that there is something called a welfare system in some factories, but they’re very pro-factory, so when it comes to issues of labour rights and issues of discrimination and gender-based violence in factories, those welfare societies do not take action because they work for the benefit of the factory. They commented that not only is it important for factories to recognise unions, but they need to refrain from “union busting”. Elaborating more on this, Van-Hoff said that there is a trend of union-busting factories because they have to comply, hence, they will let a union be formed. But at the same time, she added: “They would intimidate their staff saying ‘if you join the union, we are going to reduce your pay, we are going to let you go’, and things like that.” Sharing one such incident, she explained that one such factory had told their workers that they won’t be given the December bonus, and then the workers protested against it and some of the organisations like the civil society organisations (CSOs) in Katunayake were able to reach out to the brands. “So, basically, the executive officers and HR had decided that they weren’t going to pay the bonus, but actually, we were able to get in contact with the brand through regional networks and an international network, which reached out to the brand back in the UK.” Later they found out that this company in the UK had actually sent the money and the factories here were just coming up with various false excuses as to why they weren’t giving a bonus, even though this is technically illegal. They eventually brokered a deal with the company in the UK where the factory in Sri Lanka would get the bonus in two sections, one before the new year and one after the new year. After that, because of the pressure from the UK company, the factory in Sri Lanka agreed to the formation of a union. “But even though the union was formed, they weren’t given the presence to work as a union inside the factory.”
Both Van-Hoff and De Sayrah highlighted the importance of these unions having more female representation, as traditionally these unions are male-dominant. Concluding, they both agreed that the apparel sector is facing many problems, and this topic needs to be spoken out about more in order to raise awareness and eradicate these problems, thus giving these workers better living conditions.