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Hazards issue 135, July-September 2016
Needle: Sri Lanka's workers make a stand against exploitation
Garment workers toiling behind the electrified fences of Sri Lanka’s free trade zones are paying a high price for making the cheap clothes sold on the UK high street, War on Want has found. But it says even in this hostile environment, unions are starting to make a difference.


UK-based charity War on Want investigated conditions in Sri Lanka’s garment factories, including interviewing an injured worker, Disna (left), at her union’s headquarters close to one of the country’s many free trade zones. Her fingers were bandaged after being crushing in an industrial button machine. At first she had refused to work on the notoriously dangerous appliance rather than her usual sewing machine, but her boss insisted so she had to do the job or lose the job.

Sri Lanka is a signatory to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions that require all workers to have the right to organise unions in their workplaces. But the charity says that “despite the rhetoric from local and foreign clothing brands on their commitment to workers’ rights, the stark reality for women like Disna remains long hours, poverty pay and scant regard for safety.”

In a move War on Want says is typical, both Disna’s employer and the brand it was supplying are refusing to provide compensation or cover medical expenses. “Disna would be alone, with ongoing medical expenses and no support, if it were not for the union fighting her corner and taking her case to court,” the charity notes.

Most of Sri Lanka’s garment factories are located within the country’s free trade zones, tightly policed and with unions kept at bay. “The ongoing work of War on Want partner Free Trade Zones and General Services Employees Union (FTZ&GSEU) has been vital in raising awareness of workers’ rights,” War on Want says. “Thanks to training, garment workers are now refusing to accept unsafe working conditions or abuse by their bosses: together they are fighting back.”

BUTTON IT  On the day she was injured, Disna’s boss told her she was not to take her usual place at a sewing machine. Instead, she was instructed to operate a notoriously dangerous button machine. Disna refused at first but was told if she wanted to keep her job, she’d have to follow orders. Soon after she started operating the unguarded machine, she stopped to check whether a button was properly attached. Without warning the machine punched down, crushing her hand. Disna collapsed in pain. She has lost the use of her right hand and arm, and the extensive nerve damage has given her permanent migraines.

CAPTIVE WORKFORCE  Young women in Sri Lanka frequently have little choice but to work in garment factories in the country’s free trade zones. But without union rights and working behind electrified fences, they can face hazards, exploitation and sexual harassment and will be fired if they speak out.

UNION STAND   On 22 June 2016, more than 3,000 members of an independent trade union alliance demonstrated against severe hostility to trade unions in Sri Lanka’s free trade zones (FTZs). The six unions organised the protest in front of the main gate of the Katunayake FTZ, the biggest in the country.

ANOTHER STORY    In July 2016, the Free Trade Zone and General Services Employees Union (FTZ&GSEU) won a collective bargaining agreement with Trelleborg Wheel Systems, the Sri Lankan subsidiary of a Swedish multinational industrial tyre manufacturer. The global union for the sector, IndustriALL, says the agreement spells out “the employer’s responsibility to ensure safety at work and the prevention of accidents at the workplace. It includes a commitment from the employer to educate workers on safe working methods, and avoiding the use of toxic chemicals in the production process.” Apoorva Kaiwar, IndustriALL’s regional secretary said: “Having a collective agreement in a free trade zone is in itself an achievement. This provides a healthy working environment for Trelleborg employees.”

HATE SWEATSHOPS   War on Want’s high profile ‘Love fashion hate sweatshops’ campaign has raised the issue of garment worker exploitation everywhere from the classroom to the catwalk.

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Garment workers toiling behind the electrified fences of Sri Lanka’s free trade zones are paying a high price for making the cheap clothes sold on the UK high street, War on Want has found.

Further information
War on Want
Love Fashion Hate Sweatshops
IndustriALL global union

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