On Monday, Sri Lankan garment worker unions signed a landmark agreement with the employer association Joint Apparel Association Forum. This agreement outlines how both sides will address critical workplace issues, particularly during the pandemic.

Unions and workers groups in Sri Lanka have been agitating for better working conditions, protection of workers during the pandemic, and ending anti-union harassment. The document does not address wages. While the first two issues, namely the establishment of health committees and the granting assurances about the freedom to organize during the pandemic, were addressed first. As workers in Sri Lanka are not able to benefit from the rising export rates of its textile and garment industries, it will be necessary to address poverty wages.

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Unions welcome historic agreement

Organizations such as the Clean Clothes Campaign and Labour behind the Label, Maquila Solidarity Network and Solidarity Center, War on Want, Workers United, and the Labour behind the Label call the agreement “historic”; they welcome the significant progress this union-employer arrangement represents.

“We are pleased that, apart from the signed agreement, employers and unions reached an agreement to continue cooperation to address the issue wage loss during the pandemic. They hope for a prompt and transparent solution that makes workers whole, which also includes retailers and brands taking responsibility for the issue of lost wages.” they stated in a press release.

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

The health committees were dissolved, and living wages will be implemented.

This agreement helps to correct the power imbalance between employers and workers. It provides joint support for the Bipartite Medical Committees and a Bipartite Dispute Settlement Mechanism. All of these were key requests of the Sri Lankan factory owners during the pandemic,” said Ineke Zeldenrust (international coordinator of Clean Clothes Campaign).

“This agreement is very important and the result of strong organisation, campaigning and negotiation under the difficult circumstances caused by the pandemic that has had devastating effects on garment workers in Sri Lanka. It also covers the rights and responsibilities of many workers in the Free Trade Zones, which was long overdue,” said Edgar Romney, Secretary-treasurer at Workers United.

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