Dignity in Labour
Based on the conference presentations
by Anton Marcus
Industrial Transport and General Workers Union
Institute for Occupational Health and Safety
SRI LANKA opened its first EPZ in 1978 (Katunayake). Zones were subsequently established in Biyagama and Koggala. In August 1992, the entire country was declared a free trade area.
The government established a garment factory in every parliamentaly constituency, giving concessions to foreign investors and collaborators. Any enterprise which promoted exports could apply to be under the business-friendly Board of lnvestment(BOI) regulations, even if it was located outside the demarcated zone areas.
The majority of Sri Lanka's EPZ factories are garment or garment related. 150,000 workers are employed in all of the garment factories. 90% of all EPZ workers are women, most are between 18 and 25.
These young women, typically from far off villages, live in boarding houses near the factory. They typically shareone small roomwith 10to 12Others. Some boarding houses lack ventilation, electricity, running water, or sufficient toilet facilities.
The workers suffer from a variety of documented industrial diseases due to long working hours and difficult living conditions. Kamkaru Sthree Nivahana (Women Workers Shelter), an organisation which promotes the welfare of EPZ workers, has been collecting data about the health conditions of workers. It is organising a campaign to press the government to build hospitals in the densely populated EPZ areas.
Sexual harassment and assaults against workers travelling to and from work are common. Workers are often forced against their consent to work the night shift (10:00 pm to 6:00 am), sometimes without prior notice. Night work provisions for women workers were re scinded in 1984 to allow continuous production.
Employers are reluctant to hire married women and discourage (which includes the use of dismissal) young workers from getting married. Women are usually fired if they have children. The young women come to work in the EPZ factories to save money for their future, including their dowries, and to support their families. But because they are young women living away from home, the public image of EPZ workers' is not too good.
When Sri Lanka opened its first EPZ, the United National Party (UNP) government tried to outlaw unions. Vigorous challenges by trade unions and op position political parties led to the re moval of anti-union clauses from EPZ legislation.
Despite labour's legal victory, officers of the Board of Investment (BOI) and the police routinely harass and intimidate workers who make the slightest at tempt to form unions.
When the People's Alliance (PA) came to power in 1994, workers expected that it would be more tolerant of labour activities. During the elections, PA candidates promised to allow the formation of trade unions, stating that all laws would be effective in all parts of the country without discrimination.
The People's Alliance government is continuing to increase the array of in centives that are provided to EPZ inves tors. It has also taken measures to build investor confidence, including the active co-option of unions and political parties to support government policies.
On paper, the country's labour laws are extremely generous for workers. But what happens in reality is much different. Pro-worker labour law provisions are not implemented. Threats and harassment of workers by both the government and companies are regular but workers have combatted repressive policies and tactics with spontaneous strikes, hunger strikes, factory occupation, and even hostage taking.
NGOs have been very active in labour organising in the EPZs. But unions, which are usually linked with a certain political party, are typically suspicious of NGOs because they may main tain political ties with rival parties or foreign concerns.
Until now, the government has not cracked down on the workers' actions. Yet legislation is now being introduced to deploy special police units to crush union activities.
EXPORT PROCESSING ZONES
- Katu nayake
Regional Economic Alliances: Asian Association for Regional Cooperation
4.4% (of total employment)
UNIONISATION IN THE EPZs
UNIONISATION OUTSIDE EPZS
6.9 % ~GDP real growth)
PER CAPITA GDP (PPP)
INFLATION RATE (CPI)
US$ 6.4 billion
IN 1992, workers formed a trade union at Ansell Lanka, an Australian firm that produces surgical gloves. But the company refused to recognise the union and ignored salary and working condition demands.
In desperation, workers held management staff hostage in the factory and threatened to blow it up if their demands were not met. 38 workers were arrested and others were not allowed back to work after the hostages were released. In the end, the new Prime Minister referred the reinstatement of 68 workers and other demands to an arbitrator.
Two years later, in September 1994, Ansell workers planned to march to Colombo to continue to fight for union recognition. Workers from Ceramic World Industries Private Ltd and Alitex Private Ltd joined the procession. They too had tried to form a union but were refused recognition.
The workers thought that with the new government in officel the opportunity had arrived for them to press for their rights.
Police from the FTZ and the nearby stations gathered to prevent the 7,000 workers from marching. When the workers pacefully tried to proceed with the march, the police tear-gassed and opened fire. Eight workers received gunshot wounds and many others were in jured. Eighty-five of the workers are now without jobs.
The workers were encouraged to take action because the Minister of Labour had made a statement that labour laws apply to alI parts of the country. However, foreign investors were alarmed by the statement and met with the Prime Minister. Caving in to their threats, the Prime Minister decided to establish joint councils in EPZ factories instead of allowing unions.
(Source "FTZ: Transnationalisation of National Economy and Misery of Women Workers in Sri Lanka" by Anton Marcus )
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Globalization and Workers' Rights