FTZ apparel workers feel hemmed in and torn apart

The proposed private sector pension scheme has sent jitters among the workers in the apparel sector, with trade unionists warning of mass street protests throughout the country, aimed at forcing the government to re-think the matter or face the consequences.

The first major scenes of unrest took place on Tuesday, when an estimated 10,000 factory workers from the Katunayake Free Trade Zone (FTZ) took to the streets, cheered on by their union bosses, and in certain cases, even by their employers.

Unionists argue that the apparel industry, with a workforce of some 250,000, will be the worst hit by the proposed scheme, and therefore, have vowed to scuttle it, together with the cooperation of worker rights representatives in other sectors throughout the country.

National Union of Migrant (EPZ) Workers President (NUMW) Palitha Athukorale said the street protest at Katunayake was only the start of a wider campaign that would put pressure on the government to scrap the scheme at the earliest.

Nearly 80% of the workers in the apparel sector are women, and an equal number or more do not complete more than seven years of service on the trot. The reasons for this are many. Under the proposed scheme, a worker is required to complete 10 years, and not a day less, of straight service, to qualify for a pension that will be partly taken from the Employers Provident Fund (EPF) contributions.

“Most the female factory workers enter the sector around the age of 20, and work for five to seven years, before returning to their villages for good, where they invariably get married. They have zero savings from their paltry salaries and depend heavily on the EPF savings to start their married life or to give their dowries.”

“At present, they are eligible to obtain their EPF saving on providing proof of marriage, which will not be the case should the government have its way,” Mr. Athukorale said. “So it is clear, that the only side to benefit from this whole issue will be the state. The factory girls will have to go home empty handed, simply because they have not completed the required 10-year service, to be eligible for their EPF savings,” he added.

“This is sheer daylight robbery, and it should never be the case,” says 25-year-old, P. Malathi, who is three-months pregnant. Malathi started work at the age of 19, at a leading Apparel factory in the FTZ, and is now eagerly anticipating her return to her village at Galgamuwa in the Kurunegala District, within the next six months.

“My contribution to the fund is the only thing I have hoped to save for the baby I am expecting. But if the Government goes ahead with what it is planning to do with this so-called pension scheme, then the lights will go out for me,” she lamented.

Chandika Priyadarshini, another female factory worker in the same zone for more than two years, is making plans to leave at the earliest, before the new pension scheme is implemented. “My earlier plan was to stay on for at least another three years and collect the fund, before heading home, but now all this has changed,” this mother of one said.

Police on nocturnal visits looking for activists

Police are conducting discreet inquiries of certain activists who participated at this week’s protest at Katunayake, union officials said.

They said 55 persons were arrested, some at night from their lodges, but were released the following day.

“If the police seek information in this regard, they could always meet the union leaders. We are not in hiding and are freely available to talk with anyone, police or otherwise they said.

Islandwide protests planned

Meanwhile, 26 trade unions that make up the Joint Trade Union Alliance (JTUA), covering several sectors throughout the country, met on Wednesday this week to draw up follow-up plans to counter the proposed Pension scheme. JTUA spokesman Anton Marcus told the Sunday Times that they plan to launch several public protests in many parts of the country in the third week of June, if the government insists on going ahead with the Pension scheme.

“We have a membership of over a million workers, and they will be mobilised. This is something the Government will have to worry about,” Mr. Marcus said.

Women on war path

Taking on the Government head on in the current crisis are female trade union leaders who are determined to fight the proposed pension scheme down to the wire.“The authorities talk themselves hoarse on protecting the rights of the female workers, but on the other hand they hatch dubious schemes to rob these workers of their hard-earned monies ,” says Sujeewa Nelumani of the National Workers Congress (NWC) for the Biyagama area.

It is needless to mention that these workers hardly save a cent from their paltry monthly wages after commitments at home and elsewhere such as boarding fees and food bills.

They stick it out for some seven gruelling years in sweat shop conditions at the factories, with the main aim of collecting their gratuity and EPF payments before returning home to prepare for married life and motherhood thereon,” Nelumani explained.

Chaminda Thushari with “Dabindu” or Drop of Sweat, said that marriage obligations or otherwise, no person could stay for more than five to seven years at a garment or any other factory, because of the appalling working conditions.

“I am aware of several young girls who are forced to skip a meal to survive the month, but they do all this with the hope of collecting their funds after completing a considerable period of time. “Instead of providing some redress to these workers who make up the single largest foreign exchange earner for the country, the cash-strapped authorities are now gunning for their monies,” she charged.

She said that a survey conducted by the Labour Department in 2009, found that 63% of the female workers in the Apparel industry were anaemic, a condition attributed to a type of malnutrition. “In addition to all this, the authorities are now seeking their monies,” an angry Thushari said.

“At the end of the day, if the female hands need to collect their funds, it will be a stay of 10 years or more at the factory, and the risk of foregoing marriage. This does not go down well in Sri Lankan village life,” said Lalitha Dedumakumara, the 3-Zone Coordinator at Biyagama.

“In most cases parents are eager to have their daughters married at an early age, to avert social stigma. Life in the village is very different from that in the cities, and the marriage of a daughter is top of the agenda in most households still,” she said.

“To do this, a certain amount of money is required for the dowry and other expenses. So the girls are persuaded by their parents to leave their homes and work in the factories with the hope of collecting the relevant funds”, she added.

Raising monies in the village is difficult, if not zero altogether. So the next best thing is to go overseas, putting themselves at risk to various elements at a young age,” Ms.Dedumakumara added.

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