May Day and the Sri Lankan woman worker

Making the workplace more gender sensitive

Toiling away their day, producing goods for the export market, the free trade zones in the country, it is the workers in these areas who bring in the largest foreign currency to the country.

Though many say that we as a country could boast about the local labour laws that are established under international conventions, a question arises as to whether we can actually boast about the benefits the workers in these areas receive.  

Among the many who work with employees of the free trade zones, come horrifying stories of over work, inadequate pay and the non implementation of laws that are the workers right to a free and safe environment. Activists and trade unions alike do not complain about the laws, but they criticize the non- implementation and monitoring of these laws that lead to the exploitation of a female dominated work force that suffer the brunt of the benefits that do not trickle down to the lower levels.

The trade unions that do not form in the area leads to a large number of violations of the employees rights that activists point out need to be rectified. Even though the legal background is available in the country , many say the practical background is virtually non-existant. Many speak of the illegal over exploitation of salaries, the unfair treatment and the intimidation that takes place in some factories that adds to an increasing number of complaints that are made by those in the free trade zones.

‘Trade union action is not an option that we can take’

Chamila Thushari

Programme Coordinator- Dabindu Collective

As the law goes workers have a lot of good laws, they have the EPF, gratuity, etc but if we look at it practically these laws are not implemented. If we look at the free trade zones, workers there don’t have the right to freedom of association, there can be no trade unions and the workers there have collective bargaining agreements there.

There are close to 70 factories in the Katunayake area and there would be close to five trade unions in them all with maybe, three agreements for collective bargaining. Workers are warned right from the beginning that they will lose their jobs or benefits if they were to engage in trade union activities.

Now with the loss of GSP+ the situation has worsened. The productivity of one person is expected to increase twice as much and the workers are now giving the productivity of five years within three years. These are women that are working and are being exploited here.

Trade union action is not an option that we can take. The ones who have taken such action have been fired from their jobs or are in courts for what took place. We are a NGO and the employers don’t even like it when workers take part in our activities.

Whatever rights they have, are those that were fought for and they won through it. The “kiri paya” is something that is there for some factories but not all, where some women are allowed to take a day off during the day and the evening to feed their new born babies. There have been many merciless acts taking place, such as pregnant women, have been fired under the guise of downsizing the factory.

The BOI increases their salary every year by Rs. 500 and even with that workers receive a salary of maybe Rs. 7,950 a month, with the OT they work they would get close to Rs. 10,000 a month, which means they have to work for at least 10 or 12 hours.

They increase the productivity of the workers by giving them benefits for the targets that they set out at the current target there is a product being completed every minute.

With the study that we did we have concluded that at least Rs. 20,000 is needed for this people but they don’t receive even that. They need at least 60% of what they earn for their consumption and even with that they don’t live under good standards.

There are close to 7,000 vacancies in Katunayake alone and an estimated 15,000 vacancies for workers in the free trade zones. If this was given an attractive package where workers were given a salary to live in there would be no such problem.

‘Government must intervene to stop these women being exploited.’

Anton Marcus
Joint Secretary, Free Trade Zone workers Union

There are labour laws, it is not a problem of there not being labour laws but of poor monitoring and implementation of them. These women are exploited and the only solution is that the government should intervene to stop it.

Even though lawfully there is freedom of association, meaning that they have the right to make trade unions and fight for their demands through them but practically this is not the case. There are trade unions in some places but they are not recognised by the employers and that is why we say they actually don’t have the freedom of association.

The current salary that they receive is Rs. 7,950 a month this is not enough and they need to be given a pay hike, better working conditions and better work environments. I know some of the factories have two cards for a person, that is show how many hous they have worked that is legal and how many hours they have really worked. 

An employee can only work for 60 hours a week and one card shows this while the other one shows the number of hours they actually worked, because most if not all of them work for much longer than 60 hours.

If women are to work after 10 pm the employer first needs to get their consent and then also obtain permission from the Commissioner General of Labour but this doesn’t happen, most often these women end up working for two three shifts at a time.

‘What we want is a proper implementation of our existing laws’

Padmini Weerasooriya
Chief Organizer, Women’s Collective

Our organization usually works with and alongside women working in the free trade zones. We conduct workshops and other programmes to help these women in any way that we can. One of the first things that we tell them is that they should get organised and stand together as a team.

There is a lot of repression in these areas and the employees are scared right from the beginning to do anything or join any trade union because they are severely warned against it. Even if there are trade unions that have come up the leadership of these unions have been paid off and therefore these trade unions have slowly but surely disintegrated. This has changed just a little bit now and they work with organizations like us.

There are so many employees who have been pulled up if they were to take part in any trade union activities.

Trade unions aren’t seen in a favourable light by the employers, they don’t understand that it will be easier to communicate to the workers through the employees, unlike now where they have to talk to everyone to do something.

There are unions in these areas but they have been established after thirty or so and this is a good example as to what light these trade unions are seen in. Whatever benefits the workers have won, it is through the few trade unions that are there, that have bargained for it.

Some of these workers are over worked and they become unhealthy because of it. The low salaries that they receive as well as the bad facilities that they work under only make it worse. We don’t want new laws what we want is a proper implementation of our existing laws. We have good laws the problems that crop up are because these laws are not implemented.

Most of these women have very sad stories, some of them are orphans and have nowhere to go so they make their home in these atrocious boarding houses that have very bad conditions. There are some women who are here from outstation and bring their children along. These children need to be cared for because they are often malnourished.

‘We have to have policies that are gender sensitive’

Nimalka Fernando
Convenor, Women’s Alliance for Peace and Democracy

There is no need for changes in the existing laws, the only thing that needs to be done is for the existing laws to be implemented and monitored. Sri Lanka can proudly boast of strong labour laws that protect the worker, but these are all thanks to the workers unions who fought for their rights in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.

We have to have policies that are gender sensitive, because the free trade zones are where a majority of the workers are women and the policies have to be made in line with their needs. It is the BOI that should include these with the contracts they make with the investors to ensure that they work in better situations.  

There should be policies that would ensure there is zero harassment, hygiene and working conditions. It is the right of the employee to work in a safe environment and that is not something that can be ordered by the law to be done.

There were rumours that trade unions cannot be created among the workers but this is not true. These are just intimidating environments that has been created by the employer. But workers are now forming trade unions, despite the pressure of intimidation and harassment they have at the work place.

There are several proposals that have been made that need to implemented, such as a free environment for the worker in which they are given the perspective of their rights, an environment free of sexual harassment and an awareness among all stake holders of the rights of these workers and the working conditions and the environment they should receive.

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