Photo courtesy of The Star

Sri Lanka’s admired initial coordinated response to the COVID-19 pandemic is now a distant memory. The second wave that multiplied from the Brandix factory in Minuwangoda should have sounded a warning to the militarized COVID-19 Task Force. However, they failed to take occupational health issues seriously. The consequences are tragically unfolding as we write.

We want to focus on Sri Lankan apparels, often considered the poster child in the global garment industry, given the unconfirmed reports of escalating COVID cases in the Free Trade Zone (FTZ) areas and our previous writings and research on the subject. Is the spread of COVID-19 concentrated in the FTZ areas or is it a country level community transmission that is particularly accentuated in densely populated communities, of which the FTZ in Katunayake is one? If so, what may explain this outcome?

Sri Lankan apparels’ vision and agility is marked by the deft manner in which most of the sector shifted to manufacturing Protective Personal Equipment (PPE). MAS Holdings and Brandix, for instance, either self-reported or were reported to be launching into PPE. An ILO Research Brief (2020:8) tracking the supply chain effects of COVID-19 for the January-June 2020 period reports how Sri Lanka was placed only second to China in face masks exports. While this is admirable on the part of Sri Lankan apparels, why are garment workers flailing?

COVID-19 in Sri Lanka is no longer pockets of clusters; this is fallacy. Current data by the Epidemiological Unit of the Ministry of Health signals that the virus has spread in the community, with the community transmission evident in the most densely populated areas of the country. Given community transmission, increasing reports of garment sector workers testing positive for COVID-19 is unsurprising although it is unclear whether these reported cases are symptomatic or asymptomatic.

In our search for possible answers, there are several interconnected factors at play. According to an industry official and an ILO officer, JAAF (Joint Apparel Association Forum) protected worker health by taking an occupational health perspective. This was established through a series PCR testing on site, as per protocols set-up by the Ministry of Health. Moreover, JAAF reported that through tripartite agreements, they established bipartite health committees in factories, with an industry officer reporting:

“In the period 01 October 2020 to 24th Feb 2021, BOI companies (including non-apparel) had conducted, at their cost, just under 200,000 PCR tests. This would have cost the companies over LKR 1.5 billion. The average rate of positive results from these tests were around 3.5%, which was lower than the general average in the community (5+ %). This would suggest that the mechanisms undertaken by the BOI factories in fact were helping the overall situation, not otherwise. It’s clear though that that kind of cost is not sustainable and a new strategy is required.”

Sri Lankan government and its COVID-19 Task Force Team have not put forward a sustainable strategy which, as Tisaranee Gunasekera writes, is due to the negligence, corruption and racketeering of the government and resulting inability to consider and prioritize public health infrastructure during this global public health crisis. Added to this potent mix is the global vaccine inequality, which as Jeremy Harrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust, declared, “We should be sharing vaccines today, tomorrow and yesterday”. This combined disregard at the global scale and Sri Lankan national level is now affecting garment sector workers. As Prasad Welikumbara stated, workers are “the backbone of our economy. If they become sick, our economy is not going to move anywhere. Government has to stop focusing on corporate profits and start focusing on protecting its citizens.”

We know from the preliminary data we have collected that their unregulated boarding houses located in densely populated neighborhoods adjacent to FTZs are ideal for the rapid spread of the coronavirus. This is problematic because infected workers are being asked to quarantine in their homes. Although some factories run hostels, most workers live in housing run by residents and other private landowners of Katunayake and its surroundings. Over time, the areas have become even denser with many landlords now building multi-story buildings. Conditions are cramped and workers often share rooms with two to five people (if not more) per room. Many do not have separate kitchen facilities and so workers cook in their rooms using portable stoves. There are limited number of toilets and bathing facilities. In the post war period, there are now more couples, single mothers, children, and elders caring for children residing in boarding houses. Whereas boarding house life can provide rich friendships and support, the conditions are not conducive to quarantine.

Additionally, according to a global study, the level of support by the government towards its workers, inclusive of garment sector workers, was puny and negligible. This trifling support compounded the difficulties workers faced during the initial phases of the lockdown in April-May 2020. They had to live on erratic wage packets, no work, or live on wages that fell far below living wages. Hence, it comes as no surprise that the activists we spoke to commented on how workers were likely to feign good health and underreport mild symptoms for fear of vagaries in their wage packets. Those who are healthy were going to work with fear of infection but felt they had no other option.

Add to this mix the erratic availability of COVID-19 vaccines in the global South, including Sri Lanka. It results in workers not being able to access vaccines more easily, vaccines only offered to small sections of the workforce, or vaccines being administered during working hours, as reported by activists. “Vaccinations was carried out for the villages of Seeduwa…last week. Since workers are reporting to work they are not able to go and get the vaccine from walk-in centres”. 

Few, if any, factories making alternative provisions, with the varied reporting on the practices by different factories: “Maliban Textiles washing plant had reportedly vaccinated all their workers” and “Factories from the Katunayaka FTZ take 30 worker from each factory per day to vaccination centres”.

However, this uncoordinated approach is partly due to the lack of cooperation on the part of the government and the COVID-19 Task Force to work together with JAAF on facilitating a widespread vaccinating strategy. JAAF wrote a letter in February to work together with the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce to “…fund the cost of vaccinating 500,000 people from the private sector, plus on a ‘one to one’ basis, a further 500,000 citizens of the Government’s choosing. This was followed up by a number of requests to the Government to procure the vaccines for the industry, particularly ahead of the local new year holidays as the industry anticipated that there would be an increase in cases if citizens were not vaccinated. The commitment for the industry to pay for vaccination of its employees still stands and these conversations continue today”.

Although not officially gazetted as an essential service, FTZs and significant export sectors such as apparels are allowed and required to function during curfews and lockdown periods because they were deemed essential to the economy. Yet the absence of a coordinated vaccination program to protect garment sector workers put at peril both the workers and the sector that the national economy relies upon.

Lack of living wages and poverty-ridden housing conditions, together with global vaccine inequality that leads to black-markets due vaccine shortages, are coming back to haunt the global garment industry that is at pains to highlight women’s empowerment, ethicality and ethical trade practices. Nevertheless, it is particularly unable to uphold its part of the bargain by pressing its governments in the Global North to be ethical, unless there is equitable global vaccine distribution. This is also the responsibility of global retailers to pressurize their governments, as much as it is of the Sri Lankan government, with or without its ineffectual COVID-19 Task Force, to prioritize vaccinating working classes.

Kanchana N. Ruwanpura is Professor of Human Geography, University of Gothenburg, Sweden (@knr21_cam  @GothenburgGeog)

Samanthi Gunawardana is a Senior Lecturer in Gender and Development, Monash University, Australia (@SamanthiGun)

Buddhima Padmasiri is a Doctoral Student in Politics and International Relations, Monash University, Australia