Security force intimidation of garment workers is particularly acute in the Tamil-majority north of Sri Lanka, which has remained heavily militarized since the end of the civil war in 2009, Human Rights Watch said today.
Human Rights Watch called on the Sri Lankan government, factory owners, and the international clothes brands sourcing from Sri Lanka to protect the safety and employment rights of garment workers during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The Sri Lankan government has used a strict lockdown, first imposed on May 21, 2021, and other measures, including travel bans and bans on public gatherings, to contain a fresh wave of Covid-19 cases. However, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa ordered garment factories to remain open. Trade unions and public health inspectors have reported numerous virus outbreaks in factories, as well as in the congested boarding houses where many workers live, and alleged that employers were under-testing and under-reporting cases to maintain production levels,” said in a press release.
“Sri Lanka’s garment workers are entitled to work in safety and be properly paid even when they fall sick or need to quarantine,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
“The government and employers should fully implement existing agreements and guidelines, be transparent about Covid-19 infections in factories, and provide for workers’ welfare instead of intimidating and silencing them.”
One in seven Sri Lankan women work in the garment sector, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). There have been repeated outbreaks in garment factories since April. Yet, five labor rights activists from four organizations told Human Rights Watch they have received complaints from workers that factory managers pressured workers to work without adequate occupational health and safety measures.”
“In Maruthankerny, security officials reportedly told workers they would lose pay and benefits if they did not report for work, despite safety fears related to the spread of Covid-19,” further said.
“Sri Lankan garment workers don’t just provide for their families, they help to keep the entire economy afloat during these very difficult times,” Meenakshi Ganguly said.