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Ensure impartiality of Brandix internal inquiry, worker rights collective requests BOI

Chamila Thushari, NPP Gampaha District Candidate

ECONOMYNEXT – Labour rights activists in Sri Lanka called on the Board of Investment (BoI) today to ensure the impartiality of an internal inquiry pledged by Brandix Apparel Limited into the growing Minuwangoda COVID-19 cluster.

“Brandix has promised an inquiry into the cluster that emerged from their Minuwangoda plant. To ensure that this inquiry is impartial, there needs to be some representation of the workers and also of the Labour Department. The Board of Investment has to ensure that,” Programme Coordinator of Dabindu Collective Chamila Thushari told reporters this afternoon.

Thushari was referring to a statement made by Brandix Group Chief Executive Officer Ashroff Omar in a letter sent out to Brandix staff dated October 12.

“There have been statements made that our employee safety protocol was compromised. Since the health and safety of our employees is our topmost priority, any leader, at any level, who has been negligent will be held accountable. We are conducting a comprehensive independent investigation of our factory in Minuwangoda. We will take strong action where necessary and address what needs to change in order to prevent this from happening again,” Omar wrote in the letter as published by Colombo Gazette that same day.

Thushari was flanked by activists from a number of groups and organisations at today’s press conference, many of whom highlighted concerns regarding the situation faced by workers in the free trade zone (FTZ) in light of the ongoing public health crisis.

Chandra Devanarayana, an activist from the Revolutionary Existence for human Development (RED) group said a water supply interruption at a quarantine centre in Kalutara today caused inconvenience to some 400 to 500 people, a majority of whom were women and children,

“There was no water there from 7am to 1pm today, and people quarantined there couldn’t use toilet or bathroom facilities. A lot of these people are women. Some of them are pregnant. There are children there, too,” she said.

In a statement issued yesterday, the worker rights collective accused the government of complicity in “relaxing or overlooking regulations with regard to Brandix.”

“The government continues to maintain that the outbreak has not yet progressed to a ‘community transmission’ level, but, without conducting widespread random testing, this news cannot be viewed as assuring or accurate. It now seems to have become the sole responsibility of the public to protect themselves and take necessary precautions, as it’s very unclear how widespread the virus is in the community,” the statement said.

The collective also called into question the manner in which the government and the military have handled the recent crisis. It said the way the authorities have dealt with women workers in particular has been very problematic.

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“The lack of clear information/awareness, unsafe transportation, unsanitary quarantine facilities, and failing to conduct PCR tests prior to loading workers onto buses and upon admission to the centre, are in clear violation of basic COVID-19 regulations said to be adhered to by the government,” the statement noted.

The collective went onto highlight a series of incidents allegedly faced by FTZ workers.

“On the 11th of October (Sunday), at approximately 10.30pm, 45 garment factory workers (including 25 women, 1 pregnant woman and 2 children) from Liyanagemulla, Katunayake, were rounded-up by the military, and taken by bus to a makeshift quarantine facility in Kalutara. Workers had been told that there had been some COVID Positive workers residing in the neighbouring hostel, and that therefore, they had to be quarantined too,” the statement said.

“We were given seconds to get our things together and get into the bus. We were barely able to pack one change of clothes. We didn’t even have time to pack a comb! The military told us not to try and run away, that the entire place was surrounded. They (the military) treated us like prisoners. Like we had committed a national atrocity (jathika aparadayak),”the statement quoted an unnamed worker as saying.

Quoting more workers, the statement said: “We are not scolding the government. If not for our president we might all have been dead by now. But because we brought this government into power, we have a responsibility to hold them accountable to us. They need to rectify what they’re doing wrong, and proceed. There needs to be a comprehensive awareness building of all workers, gramasevakas, hostel owners etc., as to how to stay safe and manage this crisis. There is no proper system in place right now, and everything is taking place in an ad-hoc manner.”

This sentiment was echoed by Thushari at the press conference today.

“This government was elected by the workers of this country. So it has an obligation to look out for them and to be there for them,” she said. (Colombo/Oct15/2020)

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