Union intervention has led to a respite for thousands of migrant workers stuck in boarding houses in Sri Lanka’s 14 Free Trade Zones following the imposition of a nationwide lockdown this month. With the intervention of union leaders, authorities took steps to transport some stranded workers, mostly casual employees, back home to different parts of the country on March 18 and 27. They are under observation and have been instructed to follow social distancing.
The stranded workers were living in congested rooms in boarding houses for days without meals and wages. The Global IndustriALL-affiliated Free Trade Zone and General Services Employees Union had called on authorities to supply food rations to such boarding houses. In a letter to the minister of labor, the union also demanded that companies pay the workers’ wages.
Amid the COVID-19 outbreak, a large number of estate workers have also lost their jobs and were forced to migrate to cities. The union had urged the government to ensure wages and support to such workers as well. As per global IndustriALL, most factories in Sri Lanka are closed while some essential services are running.
In a country with a population of 26 million, a significant number of people are self-employed workers, including vendors, taxi drivers, tea stall owners and workers and those working in eateries. According to some estimates, around 60% of Sri Lankan workers are involved in daily wage work.
Jenny Holdcroft, IndustriALL assistant general secretary, urged the Sri Lankan government to take adequate steps to protect workers from the present crisis. Simultaneously, the Women’s Center launched a program to provide food in the Free Trade Zones in the country. Union representatives distributed food parcels at the boarding houses, which also accommodate daily wage workers employed through contract agencies.
The union has complained that the conditions in the boarding houses used by workers are not conducive to social distancing, falling short of many requirements necessary as COVID-19 containment measures.
So far, at least 150 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in Sri Lanka and nearly 12,000 individuals have been put under isolation or self- quarantine. There are no reports of deaths as of April 1.
Meanwhile, the Government Medical Officers Association has stated that the COVID-19 outbreak in Sri Lanka will most likely enter the community transmission stage unless the government takes urgent measures to curb its spread. Many experts have suggested that a lockdown is not sufficient to stop the outbreak and that countries need to improve their healthcare and proceed with more testing, identification and treatment.
Sri Lankan officials have previously blamed migrant workers as well as outsiders for the spread of the virus in the country. For instance, president Gotabaya Rajapaksa earlier stated that “2,000 outsiders entered the country from high risk countries, for about two weeks, before we actually started quarantine.”
World Health Organization (WHO) regional director Poonam Khetrapal Singh has cautioned the Sri Lankan government to urgently scale-up aggressive measures and do more to fight the virus.
Meanwhile, president Rajapaksa has been accused of using the crisis situation to further militarize the country. On March 17, he addressed the nation after reportedly holding a meeting with members of the Special Task Force which comprises military officers. Observers have pointed out that retired military officers have become critical personnel under the present dispensation in Sri Lanka.