Sri Lankan government launches police witch-hunt to break garment workers’ strike

The government and the company have been able to mount this offensive only because, far from mobilising other workers to defend the Bratex strikers, the Free Trade Zone and General Services Employees Union (FTZ&GSEU) has intervened to undermine the struggle.

On February 11, around 1,700 Bratex workers called an indefinite strike, demanding a 3,000-rupee ($US27) monthly wage increase and recognition of the FTZ&GSEU branch, which has about 300 members. The FTZ&GSEU did not call the strike, however—the Bratex workers walked out spontaneously.

Essentially, the strike erupted because all the trade unions have collaborated with the government in holding down FTZ workers’ wages in order to attract investment on the basis of cheap labour. The average monthly wage at Bratex, even with overtime payments, is less than 15,000 rupees ($US135).

FTZ workers have no trade union rights whatsoever. Instead, unions have sought recognition from companies via advisory councils set up in factories in the name of communicating workers’ grievances to management.

Bratex rejected the FTZ&GSEU’s plea for negotiations and called the police on February 14. On that evening, police surrounded the factory and arrested two strikers—Amal Shantha and U.W. Gayan Pradeep—as they left the premises. When hundreds of workers went to the police station, demanding the pair’s release, the police brutally attacked them and arrested three more workers.

Bratex closed down the factory, locking-out workers until February 21. It then sacked about 38 workers for allegedly participating in the February 11 and 14 incidents.

Workers told the WSWS that the company had also provided the police with a list of 20 “wanted workers” and supplied vehicles for the police to search for them. FTZ&GSEU secretary Anton Marcus actually advised some of these workers to surrender to the police, claiming that if they did not do so, the police harassment would be intensified.

Arrests have been made on vague accusations of physically attacking several officials but workers have denied the allegations. Those arrested were later released on bail, consisting of both cash and surety guarantees. The case has been scheduled for May 20, without workers even being informed what the precise charges are.

FTZ&GSEU official Asela Dharmapriya Disanayake was detained and assaulted when he visited the police station to see the arrested workers. Disanayake told the WSWS that the police had threatened him.

The police witch-hunt is just the Rajapakse government’s latest demonstration of support for Bratex, going back to January 2010, when the company refused to make scheduled bonus payments to workers.

In February 2010, after Bratex workers protested, demanding a wage hike and union rights, Siripala Amarasingha, a presidential assistant, arrived at the plant with armed personnel. He boasted to the workers of his record in suppressing 23 labour disputes and warned them against any union involvement. Workers were then granted a meagre 1,300-rupee monthly pay increase but refused union rights.

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