Labour Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva has appointed a two-member committee comprising Labour Department Legal Officer K.B.G. Premadasa and Deputy Labour Commissioner Poshitha Dabare to inquire into the Brandix Minuwangoda COVID-19 Cluster.
Premadasa told this newspaper yesterday that their mandate includes the possibility of inquiring into as to whether any labour laws were breached by the Company (Brandix) that caused the Brandix Minuwangoda COVID-19 Cluster.
He however said that currently their hands were tied because those whom they need to question in respect of this pandemic, whether they are those employed in the Brandix Minuwangoda Garment factory, or whether they be the Brandix management, were all under quarantine, since the first case was detected on 3 October, with the factory in question being sealed.
Premadasa further said that the closest Labour Department Office to Minuwangoda was the Labour Office located at Ja-Ela.
Upon making inquiries with their Ja-Ela Labour Office, it was however found that not a single complaint had been lodged by any Brandix Minuwangoda employee of alleged violations of labour rights by the Company.
Premadasa said that they hoped to provide an interim report to the Labour Ministry Secretary M.P.D.U.K. Mapa Pathirana either tomorrow or on Monday. He said that the findings from their Ja-Ela Office will be part of this interim report. But those findings alone will not comprise the interim report, said Premadasa. There is time at least till tomorrow to incorporate any other findings if any, into the report, he added.
With the Committee’s inability to come-up with a final report by launching a full probe at this juncture because all the key stakeholders are in COVID-19 quarantine, the interim report to be released at its earliest by tomorrow may or may not be a pointer as to whether the spread of this pandemic was due to alleged acts of omission or commission committed by Brandix.
Meanwhile, the Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF) in a statement on Tuesday, to quote excerpts said that the insinuation that the spread of COVID-19 was aided by Sri Lankan manufacturers run factories with sub-par working conditions that do not prioritise worker safety and wellbeing are baseless and an attempt by individuals to slander the image of the industry as a whole.
“We have witnessed first-hand the lengths to which our manufacturers have gone to ensure social distancing and adequate safety mechanisms are adhered to within workplaces,” said JAAF. “Across the board, our members are willing to showcase these steps to any individual who wishes to witness the adaptation of safe workplace principles in a Covid-19 world. However, the reality of operating in a labour intensive industry in a world that is plagued by the spread of a pandemic is that there is a reasonable risk of transmission in any workplace.
We have learned first-hand the risk of transmission that any workplace has in this new normal and urge all industries to test, trace, and isolate cases of Covid-19 where possible,” said JAAF.
“Further, we encourage all stakeholders in society to stand by the people within our industry as we battle through unprecedented circumstances. We will make mistakes and we will learn from them. That is the reality of living through times the world has not seen before.
“As the apparel industry engages in widespread testing unseen across any other industry in Sri Lanka, we appeal to the public to respect and to stand by us and our people,” said JAAF.
JAAF also said that the apparel industry continues to be one of the largest contributors to Sri Lanka’s GDP and accounts for nearly half of the island’s total exports.
Further, the industry provides a means of employment to nearly 350,000 people directly and twice as many indirectly. These employment figures make up around 15 per cent of the nation’s workforce. Few industries in the nation have done as successful a job in providing a means of sustenance to rural and urban communities in the country as the apparel industry, said JAAF.
Sri Lanka is among the top apparel producing countries in the world relative to its population due to a multitude of reasons. While productivity and quality are Sri Lanka’s hallmark, its reputation as a no sweatshop, ethical environment for a highly educated multi-cultural workforce make it a strategic partner for some of the world’s leading brands.
However, due to Covid-19, this industry that had formed the backbone of Sri Lanka’s economy for the last few decades was faced with its biggest challenge so far. Despite setbacks in April and May of 2020 that saw the country’s apparel exports fall by 82 per cent and 49 per cent, respectively, compared to 2019, the industry was able to rally by August to recommence the work after the first lockdown on the strict guidelines given by the Government and health authorities, thereby reducing the deficit to 12 per cent in August, and control the annual cumulative decline to 24 per cent, JAAF further said.