Initially admired for its prompt response to the first COVID-19, Sri Lanka however, failed to protect citizens from the second wave. Particularly vulnerable were its garment workers in free trade zones like Katunayake.
As per Ground views report, the spread of COVID-19 in Sri Lanka is not restricted to pockets or clusters. It has spread to most densely populated areas in the country. Most garment workers in the country have tested positive for COVID-19, shows data from the Epidemiological Unit of the Ministry of Health.
Failure to prioritize health infrastructure
Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF) holds, several factors responsible for this. The Sri Lankan government and its COVID-19 Task Force Team have failed to adopt a sustainable strategy and prioritize public health infrastructure during this global public health crisis. Global shortage of vaccines has further added to industry’s woes, says, Jeremy Harrar, Director, Wellcome Trust. The government needs to focus on protecting garment workers, adds Prasad Welikumbara, Political Critic and Social Media Activist.
Most workers reside in unregulated boarding houses located in densely populated neighborhoods adjacent to FTZs. Infected workers are being quarantined in their homes which they often share with two or five people. Many of these houses do not have separate kitchen, toilet and bathing facilities, the primary requirements for people in quarantine.
No support to garment workers
The government has also failed to support garment workers. Most workers are paid far below the prescribed minimum wages leading to them feigning good health and underreporting mild symptoms. Erratic availability of COVID-19 vaccines is also prompting them to skip vaccination and report to work instead.
Only a few factories like the Maliban Textiles washing plant and factories from the Katunayaka FTZ are ensuring all workers get vaccinated. A reason for this vaccination is the lack of cooperation between the government, COVID-19 Task Force and JAAF. Though in February this year, JAAF requested the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce to jointly fund the vaccination of 500,000 garment workers, there has been no response from the government so far.
Sri Lanka allows free trade zones and significant export sectors such as apparels to function even during curfews and lockdown periods. However, lack of proper vaccination puts the entire sector at risks besides threatening to derail the national economy. The sector needs to pressure the government to ensure ethical and equitable distribution of vaccines. It also needs to vaccinate working classes ensure protection of all workers.