Sri Lanka Garment Workers Rise Up Over Pensions

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THE Sri Lankan proposed private sector pension scheme has angered workers in the garment sector, with trade unionists warning of mass street protests and strikes throughout the country that could bring the government down.

The first clashes took place last Tuesday, when an estimated 10,000 factory workers from the Katunayake Free Trade Zone (FTZ), near to Colombo airport, took to the streets.

That day around 60,000 FTZ workers came out on strike to protest.

Trade Unionists argue that the garment 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.

Nearly 80 per cent of the workers in the garment sector are women, and an equal number or more do not complete more than seven years of service.

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 savings on providing proof of marriage, which will not be the case should the government have its way.

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.

The verdict of the workers was that ‘This is sheer daylight robbery, and it will not be allowed.’

Police are raiding the areas around the FTZ looking for agitators who participated in the protest at Katunayake.

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

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 said 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,’ said the union leadership.

Taking on the government head-on in the current crisis are female trade unionists who are determined to defeat the proposed pension scheme.

These women 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 sweatshop 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.

A survey conducted by the Labour Department in 2009, found that 63 per cent of the female workers in the garment industry were anaemic, a condition attributed to a type of malnutrition.

In addition to all this, the authorities are now seeking their monies.

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 the Sri Lankan village.

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.

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.

• Sri Lanka’s Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA) says that a discussion will be held on June 3rd at the bureaucracy level to seek a solution for the demands of the university teachers.

The Chairman of the FUTA Dr. Nirmal Ranjith Devasiri said the discussion held with the president Mahinda Rajapaksa yesterday evening at the Temple Trees ended inconclusive and did not result in any agreement although the president had acknowledged their issues.

He said there was no positive response to the salary issue of the academics and the trade union action would be continued.

The university lecturers last year demanded a salary hike and launched a token strike but called it off after negotiations with the government. The FUTA said the government had agreed to grant a salary hike in 2008.

Meanwhile, local media reported that the president had focused on solving the problem through dialogue and highlighted the need of a win-win situation.