Sri Lanka’s trade unions continuously highlighted the pathetic working conditions of local workers, especially in the export manufacturing sector of the apparel industry that provides a major contribution to the country's foreign exchange revenue.

There are wide spread violations of workers' rights that undermine 'Decent Work', a leading trade union said adding that it is about right to employment, to begin with, and that employers should provide a living wage for the employee and the family, it should ensure workplace safety without discrimination and the right to association.

Heavy exploitation with no respect to human lives thus came to the open, one with the apparel industry raking up almost the same value in exports with half the workforce and with the outbreak of the COVID-19 at the Brandix Lanka factory at Minuwangoda.

As per the Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF), they have in June this year earned USD 382.4 million as against USD 481.3 in June 2019, USD 441.9 million in July as against USD 452.0 in July 2019 and USD 416.7 million in August as against USD 472.6 in August 2019.

All this by heavy exploitation of half the workforce employed in the pre COVID-19 period, adding on to their profits the wages and EPF/ETF contributions saved, trade unions said.

The Minuwangoda Brandix Lanka factory tragedy speaks volumes of how the workers had been used as modern-day slaves, the trade unions added.  

832 workers out of around 1,600 had been confirmed as positive from PCR tests within 03 days.

General secretary of Free Trade Zone & General Services Employees' Union, Anton Marcus said that they firmly believe, if required precautionary measures were effectively in place, there would have been no possibility for half the workforce to contract the COVID-19 virus.

Dr Sudath Samaraweera, the Chief Epidemiologist of the country is on record saying, "when analysing the details of the factory workers, we noticed that there had been respiratory diseases in some factory workers since September 20 even though the female factory worker who first tested positive, had developed symptoms on 28 September."

Fact is, Brandix Lanka management had not taken any steps to have PCR tests done on any of those workers from September 20 till the female worker admitted to the Gampaha hospital was tested positive at the hospital on Sunday 04 October.

This total negligence of human lives may not be any different in other apparel company factories too. Apparel industries that pay no attention to 'decent work' will not have COVID-19 prevention measures in their factories, for that would restrict extreme exploitation of workers.

Meanwhile, the union stressed with utter disgust, the mainstream media including State media acted with absolute irresponsibility and with no sense of ethical journalism in insulting the affected female worker by suggesting she had been in illicit relationships.

With some social media activists too joining this slander campaign, what they effectively do is destroy the apparel industry by trying to project the industry as one that employs social discards.

He noted that the apparel industry employs over 80% young females, who come from mainly rural households and carry with them family responsibility.