Struggling for workers' rights in Sri Lanka: Behind the scenes in the garment sector with trade unionist, Assela

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Struggling for workers' rights in Sri Lanka

Behind the scenes in the garment sector with trade unionist, Assela

Assela at the office for the Free Trade Zones and General Services Employees Trade Union

Assela works as a full-time trade union official for the Free Trade Zones and General Services Employees Trade Union (FTZ&GSEU) in Sri Lanka. He describes his experience of working in the garment sector and how he became a trade union organiser.

'I used to work in a garment factory in quality control, checking the final garment in the production process. I was there for about two years. I was involved in strike action for better wages, but soon after found myself being victimized by my managers. I was transferred to work in different sections, and sometimes I didn't have the skills needed for that job. I had also challenged my managers about forcing workers to do overtime, and afterwards, they stopped offering me overtime. You can't survive on the basic wage in the garment sector - my basic wage was Rs9,000 (£51) per month. This means you have little real choice about working overtime. Workers at the factory were also placed under enormous pressure - being given production targets that were impossible to reach. They were often subjected to verbal abuse when they didn't meet them. At times, workers were in tears because of these targets and the deadlines they were expected to meet.

'Eventually, the situation for me at the factory became unworkable; I feel I was almost forced to leave. I know it will be impossible for me to get another job in the garment sector, as I'm known as a trouble maker.

'I'm now based in the FTZ&GSEU's office near a large free trade zone. Employers in the garment sector tend to be hostile to trade unions, so I'm not able to enter workplaces to organise workers and tell them about their workplace rights. In one supplier to Next, workers tried to form a union branch, and when management found out about this, they warned workers not to join the union and threatened them with the sack (1).

'Every day, about five workers, who may be members or non-members of the union, come to see me at the office (2). Most are scared about being seen entering and leaving the trade union office in case other workers inform factory management. Most workers don't know about their workplace rights and fear their employer.

'Typically, workers talk to me about feeling unfairly treated. For example, some report that they believe they have made a small mistake at work, but have received an official written warning. Others feel that they have been unfairly dismissed. I try to find out more details about their complaints and if other workers are similarly affected. When workers do come to the office for advice, it can provide an opportunity for the union to engage in dialogue with the factory to try to resolve these issues.

'I was involved in the joint organising project with the FTZ&GSEU, TUC and International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers Federation. As part of the project, I was trained with other trade union officials on issues like national laws, international conventions and rights at work. We developed a strategy to help us meet the challenges that unions face when trying to organise workers in the garment sector. One particular tactic that the union is using - is visiting workers at their boarding houses after working hours. This has created an opportunity for me to meet workers, slowly build their trust, tell them about their rights at work and how unions can help them gain better pay and working conditions. Many workers think that by joining a union, they are doing something wrong. They don't realise that being able to join a union is a human right.'

You can support the work of trade unionists like Assela by getting involved in the Playfair 2012 campaign and taking the action which calls on Adidas, Nike and Pentland (makers of Speedo) to pay a living wage; respect the right to form/join a union, have no forced overtime, and provide job security.

This interview was carried out by the TUC in Sri Lanka as part of a joint project.

(1) These violations have been brought to the attention of Next by the FTZ&GSEU and the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers Federation, and the company has agreed to work with the FTZ&GSEU to resolve these.

(2) This includes workers involved in sportswear production for the major brands.

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