The Dabindu Collective
Sri Lanka has a population of over 19 million that consists of Sinhalese, the majority ethnic group, and Tamils and Muslims as minority groups. Over 50 percent of the population and the labour force of 6.6 million are women.
Although traditionally an agrarian country for over 25 centuries, Sri Lanka’s economy underwent a drastic change since she opened her doors to investment in the late 70’s as many other Asian countries did, by liberalising trade as a pre - requisite of globalisation. The first Export Processing Zone (EPZ or Free Trade Zone) was opened in June 1978 in Katunayake, for the production of export-oriented goods only. Foreign investors from European, American, and East Asian countries were lured by offering many incentives such as relaxation of labour laws, long tax holidays etc. But the main attraction was an educated, intelligent, and submissive work force consisting of young women whose labour could be exploited with overwork and low wages. The minimum wage is approximately US$40. In many factories annual increments and government stipulated wage increases are not granted promptly.
The incentives offered and concessions granted to investors have resulted in workers getting a raw deal with long working hours including compulsory overtime and almost impossible hourly targets to complete orders in time. They are scolded in abusive language by supervisors and managers (both local and foreign) for the slightest mistake and sometimes hit too.
Workers in most factories are forced to limit answering their ‘calls of nature’ by the use of a ‘toilet token’.
The monthly attendance incentive is denied when workers are a few minutes late in reporting to work on a couple of occasions. Their total leave entitlement is 21 days per annum and in some factories new recruits are not allowed any leave until they have worked for one whole year. Health and safety measures at some factories are not adequate and there have been several cases of industrial accidents as a result of workers not wearing protective clothing.
Whereas the government spent millions on providing infrastructure for companies in EPZs, they did not build any hostels to house the influx of migrant workers, mainly from rural areas all over the island. The majority of these migrant workers are young women in their late teens and early twenties who are herded together inside small rooms in temporary structures hurriedly put up adjacent to private homes. They have to cook meals in a communal kitchen at each lodging house or in their shared rooms. The majority sleep on the floor though in some places two women share double beds. Because most companies provide no transport for women who finish the night shift at 10 or 11 p.m. and because public transport is also scarce late at night many women encounter trouble when returning along ill-lit roads to their crowded boarding places.
Being quite young, women workers tend to spend more on clothes and jewellery while eating sparingly to save money, resulting in malnutrition and general weakness. Most of them send money regularly to poor parents in villages far away. As they lack family protection many unscrupulous men, both single and married, take advantage of their vulnerability, resulting sometimes in unwanted pregnancies and abortions.
Although they toil hard bringing in the major portion of much needed foreign exchange to Sri Lanka, EPZ women workers are usually held in very low esteem by society. Ironically the government neglects them and the other major contributors to the national economy, i.e. the migrant women who work in the Gulf countries as housemaids, or pluck tea leaves in our plantations.
The Board of Investment is in charge of foreign investment including that of the EPZs and has provided direct employment to over 350,000 workers.
The problems of EPZ workers are aggravated as there are no trade unions to fight for labour rights. 23 percent of formal sector workers are organised in trade unions, but since the inception of EPZs formation of unions has been discouraged through intimidation, demotion, and dismissal of leaders.
Workers’ councils were introduced by the government as a weak alternative to trade unions and in several factories they consist of worker representatives chosen by the employers and not elected by workers independently. Worker’s councils have no bargaining power but they have been useful in rectifying certain irregularities at some work places. They may be registered as unions in the EPZs. Since year 2000, some national and local level trade unions have been able to form union branches in a handful of factories. It is indeed a positive step towards safeguarding worker’s rights in the EPZs but its success has yet to be seen.
In 1998 the International Labour Organisation (ILO) requested information on any progress made in collective bargaining in EPZs by the government. The government indicated that Article 4 of ILO Convention No. 98 is applied in all sectors of the economy including EPZs and enterprises within the preview of the Sri Lanka Board Of Investment, but that details on collective agreements were not yet available. The ILO urged the government to provide more details and concrete information about EPZs and industrial establishments including the number of collective agreements concluded and the number of workers covered.
APPEAL AGAINST CHANGES TO SRI LANKA’S LABOUR LAWS
In July 2000 the government of Sri Lanka sought to amend the overtime legislation to 100 hours of overtime per month. Current legislation states that the maximum number of overtime hours that women can work is 100 hours per year, with no more than six hours per week and the total number of weeks that overtime is worked should not exceed 25.
In media releases the Chairperson of the Board of Investment, Mr Thilan Wijesinghe claimed that these changes needed to be made so that Sri Lanka would remain internationally competitive, especially after the removal of quotas under the Multifibre Agreement (MFA) in the year 2005. And to conform to the codes of conduct of major brand labels/retailers who do business in Sri Lanka (this is despite the fact that most codes of conduct recognise that labour law or 14 hours per week overtime should prevail, which ever is better).
The Industrial Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU), Free Trade Zones Workers Union (FTZWU), The Women’s Centre and TIE-Asia sent out an appeal against these changes within Sri Lanka.
This amendment was eventually postponed in parliament due to the elections, but will be raised again. The main reason why democratic and independent unions are protesting against an increase in hours of overtime worked is that although routinely violated, the existing law offers some protection to workers if they refuse overtime work, as should be their right.
Positions vary amongst unions on the provisions that should be contained within the overtime legislation.
The position of the Free Trade Workers Union is that there must be real consultation and discussion with unions before changes are made and that any changes must reinforce the notion that overtime is voluntary and remunerated at overtime rates, as allowed for under current legislation. Any changes to overtime legislation needs to be viewed within the context of the entire labour legislation and living wages.
Workers need overtime work because their wage is not enough to live on. Sri Lankan workers are currently facing excessive price hikes on essential items as the government desperately needs funds to finance the ongoing civil war.
Presently, under emergency services regulations it is illegal for workers to strike in support of their demands or against proposed government changes to their conditions.
Sri Lankan unions and NGO’s wrote supporting our appeal against changes to the overtime legislation.
As a result of letters sent regarding this appeal the International Labour Organisation sent a letter to the Sri Lankan Minister of Labour, annexing their report from Geneva, suggesting that the government convene a tripartite meeting, with unions, including the ITGWU and FTZWU. This meeting was not held, however we understand that the unions affiliated to the Government were called again to further discuss the amendment.
The Labour Department was watching the campaign and at one stage asked what the unions’ future plans were. As a result of pressure, government did decide to reduce the maximum number of hours from 100 hours per month to 80 hours per month, which is still too high.
The new Minister of Labour is from the government union. It is our opinion that the government intends to press ahead with amendments to this legislation, using the new minister to pressure the unions to accept this.
From an appeal issued jointly by the Women Center TIE- Asia, The Industrial, Transport, and General Workers Union, and the Free Trade Zone Workers Union.
Article courtesy of the Committee for Asian Women
Source: ALU Issue No. 38, January - March 2001