Sri Lanka Joint Apparel Association Forum Right of Reply to Human Rights Watch

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WE, the Sri Lanka Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF) wish to express concern over several misleading allegations raised in the article published by Human Rights Watch (HRW) on 12 July 2021, titled “Sri Lanka: Protect Garment Workers’ Rights During Pandemic, Compromised Safety, Pay Cuts, Representatives Threatened.”

As acknowledged by HRW, a fully-functioning apparel industry is critical to the Sri Lankan economy, to employment and the wellbeing of nearly 1 million individuals, who directly or indirectly depend on this industry for their primary source of income.

As such, the health, safety and sustainability of the industry is among the foremost priorities, especially at a moment of extreme national and global crisis. It is therefore incumbent on those reporting on the current state of the industry to do so responsibly and with due consideration for fairness and accuracy.

Sri Lanka Apparel – Joint Apparel Association Forum Sri Lanka (JAAFSL)

Unfortunately, the article in question has published several inaccurate claims without any regard to the positive developments that have taken place in the industry, particularly progressive steps made in combatting COVID-19, over the past year. JAAF notes with disappointment that none of these allegations have been substantiated with evidence that verifies the claims.

Similarly, HRW failed to seek any comment from any representatives from apparel associations, or even workers in the factories themselves, instead relying solely on uncorroborated claims of labour activists.

Consequently, JAAF is obligated to correct the record on matters that are within its domain, as the representative body for the entire Sri Lankan apparel industry.

The article has made several claims, each of which we have responded to in detail. Further, HRW has made reference to pay cuts, without providing context into market conditions, or the legal safeguards implemented to mitigate the impact of such pay cuts.

Health and safety policies   

1).Extremely robust health and safety protocols, reporting and enforcement mechanisms have been established, in close collaboration with public health and government authorities. In addition to frequent inspections by Public Health officials, all facilities are strictly inspected by independent third party auditors on behalf of the buyers and brands on a continuous basis, to ensure strict compliance with local regulations, and international best practices.

These include but are not limited to: Rigorous social distancing, mandatory wearing of masks, extensive sanitization protocols, temperature checks, PCR and rapid antigen testing and vaccinations.

In the event of a confirmed COVID positive case, the patient is placed in a preliminary isolation area, Public Health Inspectors and Ministry of Health is notified of the case detection and the patient taken for quarantine. Contact tracing is implemented and first contacts are directed to isolate, pending a PCR test. In the event that test positivity rate in any given facility reaches a high threshold as determined by local health authorities, after studying the ground situation that facility is temporarily shut down until cases are brought under control.

In that context, total absence of evidence to substantiate and investigate instances in which these critical regulations are being “flouted”, is deeply irresponsible. If HRW or the labour activists cited, are able to produce such evidence, either to JAAF or to the relevant Government authorities, we can confidently make the assurance that such matters will be impartially investigated and necessary action taken. HRW has alluded as much through its own citation of an instance when COVID guidelines were violated, and the relevant parties were submitted for legal action, without any interference.

Moreover, HRW failed to take into account the final aspect of the immensely important progress made in vaccinating the apparel sector work force. At the time that HRW published its article, the industry had crossed a 30% threshold in vaccinations, and at the time of this response, first doses have been administered to 65% of the workforce. This information is of crucial relevance to the discussion of worker safety, and is similarly concerning in its absence.   

2) The claim that testing rates have reduced is also incorrect. As part of a collective effort to secure operational continuity while minimizing health risks from COVID, the industry has continuously tested for the virus at a rate equivalent to 1% of the total workforce in each factory, weekly. The results of these tests are reported directly to the Ministry of Health (MoH).

Two reports are filed independently by employers and separately by health authorities, who conduct the tests. Any mismatch between positive and negative results in these two reports, or an overall reduction in the number of tests administered, is captured by the MoH. All of this data is subsequently published by the MoH.

3). Allegations that government mandated COVID Health Committees, comprising management and employee representatives are not widely implemented, is incorrect. Minutes of each meeting of health committees for each factory is recorded by each firm. Further, this claim has been refuted and acknowledged as false, even at the National Labour Advisory Council

In light of the above, JAAF reiterates that multiple layers of safeguards have been implemented to minimize the spread of COVID within apparel factories. Given the uniquely virulent nature of this global pandemic, no protocol can be completely successful at achieving zero cases when community transmission is evident. However, JAAF stands by its stance that the industry is doing its utmost to ensure employees are working in a safe environment, where health protocols are adhered to.

Wages

There are several factors which need to be considered on the matter of salary and pay. Needless to emphasize, the pandemic has been extremely damaging to every level of Sri Lankan and global economies. HRW notes that the majority of apparel workers are female. This is true not only for Sri Lanka but also across Asia, where women account for 80% of the workforce. This is an industry that is fundamental to female labour force participation and a pathway to empowerment through financial independence. Lesser known is the fact that Sri Lankan apparel workers are paid substantially more on average than any other apparel producing country in Asia. Further, Sri Lankan apparel worker’s take- home earnings is far higher than the legal minimum wage in the Country.

Unfortunately with the first lockdown in March 2020, with few exceptions, almost every sector of the economy was stalled, leading to a freeze in revenue generation. In the preliminary months, daily paid workers – including those in apparel were faced with a crisis as a result. However, by 1st May 2020, the industry and Government reached an agreement wherein employee wages would continue to be paid, with a maximum deduction of 50% or Rs 14,500, whichever is higher, being set as an absolute minimum, for those unable to report to work. This was 15 months ago. The situation has changed since then.

Currently approximately 80% of the apparel workforce is employed by 25 firms, most of who have long since reversed pay cuts for all employees below managerial level. For those firms that are in the minority, still facing severe challenges in revenue creation, pay deductions are limited as described above. Comprehensive legal mechanisms are in place to support any employee facing such issues, free of charge.

With regard to issues raised by HRW regarding fundamental rights violations, these matters are outside the purview of JAAF to comment upon. However, we wish to point out that HRW erroneously made reference in its article to detention of trade unionists on 8July 2021. Without prejudice to legality of such matters, JAAF wishes to inform HRW that these protests conducted by teacher trade unions were in response to issues in the education sector, and have no relevance or connection whatsoever in the apparel sector.

Finally, HRW makes mention of an individual firm in its accusation but fails to acknowledge that the said firm was absolved of wrong-doing in an independent investigation conducted by local authorities. This was affirmed through the Minuwangoda Magistrate’s Court, whose determination proved no wrong-doing on the part of the accused firm.

In light of the above JAAF urges HRW to exercise responsibility when reporting about matters in the apparel sector, and to seek clarification or comment from JAAF or its members, which would be the more professional and courteous approach.

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