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[Joint Statement] Sri Lanka: Protect Free Trade Zone workers and abide by treaty obligations

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(Bangkok, 14 June 2021) – The Government of Sri Lanka and factory owners must heed calls from civil society organisations (CSOs) and trade unions urging the protection of Free Trade Zone (FTZ) workers from COVID-19 amid a surge of infections.

‘In line with its obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the Sri Lankan Government should immediately take steps towards protecting the lives of FTZ workers by implementing the demands and recommendations labour organisations posed last month,’ said the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) and its member organisation, Law and Society Trust (LST).

Despite emerging clusters and national lockdowns since March 2020, FTZ workers have been working throughout the COVID-19 outbreak in Sri Lanka.[1] Media outlets reported COVID-19 clusters emerging in several FTZs, including Katunayake – the country’s largest FTZ where at least 50,000 employees have been infected.[2]

On 31 May 2021, Sri Lankan labour organisations issued a ‘desperate appeal’[3] addressed to the international community, explicitly calling on the Government and factory owners to treat FTZ workers not just as essential workers, but as frontline workers who need protection.

The appeal reiterated the six primary demands the groups earlier sent to the Minister of Labour and other relevant Government officials, including the Minister of Health, State Minister of Primary Healthcare, Commissioner General of Labour and the Board of Investment.[4]

Among the six demands are calls for widespread PCR testing for workers, fast-tracking COVID-19 vaccinations for all workers in the FTZ and ensuring that companies adhere to COVID-19 prevention guidelines.

‘We call on the Sri Lankan government, as well as employers and factory owners, to immediately act on the demands detailed in the appeal. In the spirit of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, FORUM-ASIA also calls on global brands and suppliers with factories in Sri Lanka to act with heightened human rights due diligence to identify and prevent adverse human rights impacts in their supply chains,’ said Shamini Darshni Kaliemuthu, Executive Director of FORUM-ASIA.

As State-run quarantine centres reached full capacity, many FTZ workers who tested positive for COVID-19 and people they lived with were forced into mandatory quarantine in their respective hostels and boarding houses. Most workers were put on forced leave, without receiving relief rations from the Government and have been largely ignored by most factory owners.

They were and still are dependent on assistance from CSOs, trade unions and well-wishers. Some factories have provided their workers with rations, which are shared among other workers living in their hostels. However, many workers, particularly ‘manpower workers’ who are contracted through recruitment agencies, have not had work for months, and are particularly vulnerable and in need of urgent assistance.

Workers have been taken to quarantine centres, sometimes a long way off from where they reside and work, even to Northern Sri Lanka more than 300 kilometres away, and have complained of squalid conditions, substandard food and a lack of medical attention.

‘The Government’s mismanagement has already caused too much suffering to FTZ workers, especially to women workers. We have seen a highly militarised response to COVID -19 implemented in Sri Lanka; this must change into a human-centric approach. In the workplace there must be a worker-centric approach, where the respect and protection of the human rights of workers guides business operations,’ said Sakuntala Kadirgamar, Executive Director, Law and Society Trust.

FORUM-ASIA and 32 of its member organsiations stand in solidarity with the FTZ workers and trade unions. Even more so during the pandemic, state and non-state actors must uphold their obligations under the international treaty the country has ratified and ensure the protection and respect of human rights in the context of business operations as stipulated by the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.


Six key demands put forward by the Sri Lankan labour organisations

Below are key demands detailed by Commercial and Industrial Workers Union (CIWU), Dabindu Collective, National Union of Metal and Migrant Workers in Sri Lanka (NUMMS), National Union of Seafarers Sri Lanka (NUSS), Revolutionary Existence for human Development (RED), Sramabimani Kendraya, Standup Movement Lanka, and Textile Garment & Clothing Workers Union (TGCWU):

  1. Shut down all factories for at least two weeks; provide paid leave, and carry out widespread PCR testing so as to make a proper assessment of the ongoing crisis. Based on these findings, informed decisions can be made, in consultation with workers, CSOs and trade unions.
  2. Prioritise and fast-track the COVID-19 vaccination of ALL workers in the FTZ and apparel supply chain, both in the western province and the rest of the country. This should include both regular/permanent and manpower workers. Set up awareness and vaccination centres at health facilities near the zones, and at the gates of the different Free Trade Zones (FTZ). Have a target of vaccinating all workers within a two-week period.
  3. Immediately take measures to trace, isolate and transport workers who test positive, and their first contacts, to quarantine centres. The workers should be informed of the COVID-19 infection situation at their respective factories on a daily basis.
  4. Workers who are forced into quarantine centres or self-isolation due to being exposed to COVID-19 infection at their workplace, on the way to work, or at their boarding house, must be given full pay for quarantine days, and no reduction in attendance bonus and other related incentives. Any quarantine related expenses must be reimbursed by factory owners to the workers.
  5. Ensure that the Rs. 5,000 monthly relief ration pack/allowance, promised by the Government, be distributed to all workers too, irrespective of election lists.
  6. Ensure that all factories strictly adhere to health and safety guidelines. These include regular checking of: workers’ temperature; workspace and machinery lay-out to ensure that the recommended distance between workers is maintained; the regular sanitizing of machines, surfaces and raw materials; provision of PPE for all workers, and facilities to wash and sanitise hands regularly, among others.

Endorsed by:

  1. Asian Resource Foundation, Thailand
  2. Association for Law, Human Rights and Justice – Hukum, Hak Asasi dan Keadilan (HAK), Timor Leste
  3. Association of Women for Awareness & Motivation (AWAM), Pakistan
  4. Awaz Foundation Pakistan – Centre for Development Services, Pakistan
  5. Balay Alternative Legal Advocates for Development in Mindanaw (Balaod Mindanaw), the Philippines
  6. Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM), India
  7. Bir Duino-Kyrgyzstan
  8. Bytes for All, Pakistan
  9. Center for Communication and Development Studies (CCDS), India
  10. Centre for the Sustainable Use of Natural and Social Resources (CSNR), India
  11. Community Self Reliance Centre (CSRC), Nepal
  12. Dalit Foundation, India
  13. Dignity, Kazakhstan
  14. Indonesia Legal Aid Foundation – Yayasan Lembaga Bantuan Hukum Indonesia (YLBHI)
  15. INFORM Human Rights Documentation Centre, Sri Lanka
  16. International Legal Initiative Public Foundation (ILI Foundation), Kazakhstan
  17. Jagriti Child and Youth Concern Nepal (JCYCN), Nepal
  18. Karapatan, the Philippines
  19. Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, Kazakhstan
  20. Korean House for International Solidarity (KHIS), South Korea
  21. Maldivian Democracy Network, the Maldives
  22. Odhikar, Bangladesh
  23. People’s Watch, India
  24. People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD), South Korea
  25. Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU), Bangladesh
  26. Right to Life, Sri Lanka
  27. Rights Now Collective for Democracy (RN), Sri Lanka
  28. Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (SPARC), Pakistan
  29. Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFDP), the Philippines
  30. The Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA), the Philippines
  31. The Psychological Responsiveness NGO, Mongolia
  32. Think Centre, Singapore

The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) is a regional network of 81 member organisations across 21 Asian countries, with consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council, and consultative relationship with the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights. Founded in 1991, FORUM-ASIA works to strengthen movements for human rights and sustainable development through research, advocacy, capacity-development and solidarity actions in Asia and beyond. Its regional secretariat is in Bangkok, and it has sub-regional offices in Geneva, Jakarta, and Kathmandu.

The Law & Society Trust (LST) is a not-for-profit organisation engaged in legal research, advocacy and human rights documentation in Sri Lanka. Our aim is to use rights-based strategies in order to promote and protect human rights, enhance public accountability and strengthen respect for the rule of law.


For a PDF version of this statement, please click here.

For a PDF version of the key demands to address the COVID-19 crisis in the Free Trade Zones, please click here.

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