Ignored by their Employers and Government: FTZ Workers Left in the Lurch
By Sandeep Tissaaratchy
“We work all day and night and still we do not earn the minimum wage. The moment COVID-19 started spreading, we became outcasts. We had no one to turn to. Neither the Government nor our employers helped us through the harsh circumstances because of the stigma that surrounded factory workers. We barely have enough food to feed our children let alone ourselves,” said a Free Trade Zone (FTZ) worker, employed in a private factory in Katunayake.
The pandemic has caused many individuals, from various income brackets, to lose their jobs. Society tends to attack and discriminate people without understanding the suffering and pain they go through daily just to purchase food barely enough to feed their children.
The FTZ workers in Sri Lanka have become one of the major economic contributors to Sri Lanka and yet the treatment of these hardworking communities by companies and manpower agencies, who employ them, is truly devastating.
How were these workers treated before COVID-19?
Before the pandemic hit the country, the workers suffered in the hands of manpower agencies and companies which were allowed to abuse and misuse the vulnerability of the labourers.
Since majority of the workers were daily wage earners, contracts were rarely offered to them and even when these were provided, multiple issues were faced by the women who make up the majority of FTZ workers.
The ease companies have in terms of replacing workers due to the large supply of labour and limited demand, results in companies having too much power and control. These labourers who are in desperate need of jobs are willing to sign whatever contract falls on to their laps as they are afraid of losing their pay check.
Even if women wanted to know what rights they are signing away, most of the time they are unable to read or write, a fact most companies are thoroughly aware of.
Upon taking a closer look at contracts provided to these workers, it was revealed that no compensation or support is provided if a worker has an injury while working in the factory. In addition no other health benefits, overtime payments or any other financial aid is provided.
Workers are also used to working late hours on holidays, which means that they have no time to rest or see their families. Even if workers suffer from severe exhaustion they have nowhere to turn to for help.
In essence, the workers were treated as if they were machines that were able to work efficiently with very little care or concern given to their mental and physical well-being.
This pre-pandemic context proved that the system had forgotten and devalued these individuals, who seemed to be treated with less respect than even the machines used in the factories.
What happened to these workers after the pandemic hit the country?
The women who are the largest group of FTZ workers suffered in multiple ways after the pandemic spread throughout the country.
The Non-Government Organisation, ‘Revolutionary Existence for Human Development’ (RED) which works closely with the FTZ workers in the Katunayake area, spoke to Ceylon Today to shed some light on the tragedies women have been facing.
“The issues are numerous and women suffer from financial, nutritional, housing, physical and mental problems which go unaddressed most of the time,” they said.
What did pay cuts mean for the workers?
Companies refusing to provide even half of the promised salaries have affected the workers in more ways than one.
This resulted in women being unable to purchase daily essentials. When NGOs made such complaints to the factories that are employing them, workers were laid off. The dismissal of workers during the pandemic left a large number of women without ways or means of surviving.
The moment women were laid off, the next big issue that arose was the inability to purchase any food, water and basic essentials.
“Food slowly started running out for the families and once it ran out they didn’t have anything to do. They did not have enough money to purchase a loaf of bread, let alone have enough money to prepare a meal. It got to the point that they begged us, not for anything else, but just for food,” a member of RED said.
Most factories did not provide anything, and even the factories that provided aid only sent in food parcels for the families with basic food essentials which were not enough for families to survive.
Once the public were made aware of the Brandix cluster, almost immediately the workers were asked to isolate, including residents in the neighbourhood. The moment everything shut down, all shops closed down and families were unable to purchase any essential goods that they needed. They barely received a face mask, let alone any other sanitary equipment to keep their families safe.
What was the condition of these boarding houses where the women went into isolation?
“The conditions were a nightmare. Boarding houses that had a capacity to hold a maximum of 40 people all of a sudden had at least 200 individuals occupying small spaces. The families began sharing rooms in order to divide the rent amongst them.”
Boarding houses were unable to find a solution quick enough to reduce the spreading of COVID-19 among the FTZ workers as they had no way of maintaining the guidelines sent out to them due to the congestion of so many individuals in one space.
This is not the fault of the boarding house owners, who did not throw the families onto the street, unlike the wealthy private companies that did not think twice about doing so.
Boarding owners also suffered from the pandemic as they needed to find solutions to accommodate the workers’ families and still earn a living.
“If the women were unable to pay the rent, they had to become sex workers as a ways of surviving. This is the unfortunate reality. It is not ideal, but what else can they do? If they do not do so, they not only put their lives at risk but the lives of their children as well.”
Unwanted pregnancies have also been on the rise as a result of the pandemic. This is not just because women are going into prostitution but also because of the fact that when pharmacies and stores close, birth control is impossible to find. Families have grown even though parents are already barely scraping by.
“A very young innocent girl was sexually molested by a boarding house owner a few weeks after she arrived. She could not even speak Sinhala and hadn’t been away from her family before. She was in a state of shock which resulted in her shaming her own self. The guilt was too much for her. It was so traumatic that she committed suicide. We couldn’t save her on time” another RED member said.
What happened to the workers who could not stay in boarding houses?
The Government provided transportation to take some of the workers back to their homes. However, due to the lack of coordination many of the workers were left stranded and there have been very limited transport facilities recently.
“Even if we could go back, there is nothing that we can do. We will suffer back at home as well,” another worker who felt that leaving their already bleak situation would not change anything.
The situation looks bleak for these women who are unable to receive the COVID-19 vaccine only because they are registered elsewhere. This exclusion from vaccination has made the problem worse. Women find it difficult to get jobs due to the fear and stigma that has been placed on FTZ workers.
“We do not want to let anyone know that we are showing symptoms because we cannot afford to lose our jobs. COVID-19 is on the rise in these regions. People assume it’s decreasing only because there is less reporting done on this issue,” a worker said.
Who helped these people during this traumatic time?
“The community has come together. Police officers in the neighbourhood, including local Government officials, did the best they could to provide any aid they can for the workers. The residents of the area also tried to do what they could. It is not enough but it is something worth being proud of”, a RED worker said.
When RED was asked if the Government had any involvement with the provision of aid and relief to the people, they said that the only help received was the transportation facilities which were also slowly reducing.
“We aren’t afraid to admit that the Government has not done enough. There is so much more they can do. The need to keep these factories in check must happen as they are fooling everyone with a very different image to what is really happening behind the scenes. These people need help and they need it now.”
What is the solution?
There is a need to put an end to the suffering these workers are undergoing.
There is no need to get rid of this industry as it contributes a large sum economically while simultaneously providing thousands of jobs for people who are in desperate need of employment.
Solving the issue is simple and easy. If these manpower agencies and factories put in an effort to treat their workers like they would treat a normal employee whose basic rights are protected, it will be a huge step in the right direction.
This solution is not impossible as companies are capable of financing this without affecting their profit-oriented goals.
If the Government can ensure that they will create a system where repeated checks of factories are conducted, private companies can then be held responsible and will reduce the risk of workers being exploited.
These methods are simple and only a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, after many years the same solutions are still being advocated to prove that little is done to alleviate the misery that these women, men and children are suffering.
The reality is that if nothing is done, more people will succumb to starvation and depression. The voices of these people which have been silenced for so long need to be raised.
Workers are the backbone of a country and their rights should be addressed if any country wants to see development. Free Trade Zone workers are one of the hardest working forces in Sri Lanka and their safety rests in the hands of the Government which has a duty to protect them, irrelevant of their social status.