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Sri Lanka: new union-employer agreement addresses key worker rights issues

By Simone Preuss

Dec 27, 2021

Business

Image: the different representatives after signing / Clean Clothes Campaign website

Garment worker unions in Sri Lanka have signed a ground-breaking agreement with employer association Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF) on Monday, in which both parties reached an understanding about how to address vital workplace issues for garment workers, especially during the pandemic.

Sri Lankan unions and workers groups have been campaigning for been better working conditions, effective protection for workers during the pandemic and an end to anti-union harassment. While installing health committees and laying down assurances on the freedom to organise during the pandemic was tackled first, the more complex topic of wages is not yet included in the document. Thus, poverty wages will also need to be addressed as workers currently do not profit from the growing export rates of the Sri Lankan textile and garment industry.

Unions welcome “historic agreement”

Organisations like the Clean Clothes Campaign, Labour behind the Label, Maquila Solidarity Network, Solidarity Center, War on Want, Workers United call the agreement “historic” and welcome the important progress that this union-employer agreement represents.

“We applaud the fact that separately from signed agreement, unions and employers reached an understanding to continue collaboration to investigate and address the issue of wage loss during the pandemic. We hope for a timely and transparent solution to make workers whole that also includes brands and retailers taking responsibility to settle the problem of lost wages,” they state in a press release.

“This is the first time an industrial sector is represented in a bi-partite agreement with worker representatives. …. This is also the first time both employer and employee representatives have agreed on workplace health management through bi-partite health committees,” stress the Sri Lankan signatory unions, the Free Trade Zones & General Service Employees Union, the National Union of Seafarers Sri Lanka & National Union of Migrant Workers Sri Lanka and Sri Lanka Nidahas Sewaka Sangamaya in a joint statement.

Health committees have been tackled, living wages next

“This agreement goes some way towards redressing the power imbalance between workers and employers. It gives joint support for the Bipartite Health Committees, and a Bipartite Dispute Resolution Mechanism, all of which have been key asks of the Sri Lankan trade unions to factory owners during the pandemic,” commented Ineke Zeldenrust, international coordinator at the Clean Clothes Campaign.

“This agreement is of great importance and is the outcome of strong organising, campaigning, and negotiating under the difficult circumstances of the pandemic, which has had dire effects for garment workers in Sri Lanka. Significantly it explicitly covers the rights of the many workers in the Free Trade Zones which is long overdue,” added Edgar Romney, secretary-treasurer of Workers United.