14,000 years for Sri Lankan sportswear workers to earn Nike CEO's 2010 pot

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14,000 years for Sri Lankan sportswear workers to earn Nike CEO's 2010 pot

TUC supporting Sri Lankan garment workers to win better pay and conditions

Free Trade Zones














While Nike CEO Mark Parker is deciding what to do with his £8 million compensation package for 2010, the TUC is supporting sportswear workers in Sri Lanka to organise and win an annual wage of around £700 at minimum and better working conditions. At current wage levels, it could take Sri Lankan sportswear workers over 14,000 years to earn what Mark Parker made in 1 year. There's no disputing that this isn't playing fair. Sportswear brands sourcing from Sri Lanka include Nike, Adidas, Speedo, Puma and Reebok, and amidst violations of human and trade union rights, their profits continue to grow. It's time for these big brands to raise the bar on workers' rights and ensure workers manufacturing their products are paid a living wage.

This briefing provides an overview of the TUC project 'Organising sportswear workers in Sri Lanka' and the challenges faced in implementation. The project is being delivered by the local Free Trade Zones & General Services Employees Union (FTZ&GSEU) and aims to: organise workers, educate them about their rights and enable them to claim their rights through strengthened collective bargaining systems. The project runs from November 2009-March 2011 and could benefit up to 27,350 workers, 79 per cent of whom are women. The FTZ&GSEU is the biggest trade union organising in the free trade zones, with a membership of over 16,000 workers, and is being supported to deliver the project by the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers Federation (ITGLWF). The project is linked to the Playfair 2012 campaign, which is coordinated by the TUC and Labour Behind the Label. In the run up to the London Olympics, Playfair 2012 is calling on the sportswear industry and Olympic movement to ensure that the rights of workers in their global supply chains are respected, so they can enjoy decent work.

'The Playfair 2012 Olympic campaign preserves the right to pressure to improve the rights of the real players who are behind the Games '

Anton Marcus, Joint General Secretary, Free Trade Zones & General Services Employees Union, Sri Lanka.

The challenge of organising workers in Sri Lanka is immense. Following a US State Department investigation into labour rights and human rights abuses in export processing zones and the apparel sector, which involved the FTZ&GSEU, Sri Lanka's preferential access to US markets through the Generalised System of Preferences (US GSP), has been under review since July 2010. The investigation was the result of a petition to the US government by the American Federation of Labour and Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO) supported by the FTZ&GSEU. Sri Lanka has also lost its preferential access to European markets through GSP+, which was withdrawn in August 2010 after the Sri Lankan government failed to report on progress to address human rights violations. An ITUC report to the WTO General Council in November 2010 highlighted that Sri Lanka has fallen short of implementing ratified core ILO conventions and maintains some legal restrictions on union organising and collective bargaining. The Sri Lankan government is currently encouraging existing factories and suppliers to relocate to the north and east of Sri Lanka, where wages are lower and labour laws more weakly enforced.

Project progress and challenges

Baseline research & target factories

At the start of the project the FTZ&GSEU carried out a baseline survey covering 51 factories. The results, analysed at two workshops attended by trade unionists and factory level representatives, resulted in the selection of 16 target factories for organising. The factories are located in export processing zones (EPZs) in Koggalla, Katunayake, and Biyagama. Criteria for selection included: production for sportswear brands; violations of national legislation, lack of respect for internationally recognised labour standards & non-adherence to buyer codes of conduct; factories supplying to ETI members; union membership; and factory location. In the 16 factories, common themes relating to labour standards were documented including:

Victimisation and intimidation of workers trying to form or join a trade union and presence of unrepresentative 'employees councils'.

Low wages.

Workers being unaware of their rights.

Buyer codes not being exhibited and in some cases workers not being allowed to talk to auditors freely.

Compulsory overtime and overtime in excess of legal limits.

Unreachable production targets.

Women questioned about being pregnant at interview.

Reaching out to organise workers

Work has begun to organise 4 of the 16 factories through 3 trade union task forces. As part of the project, the 36 task force members were trained in organising; national labour laws; and workplace rights. With limited access to the factories, task force members have been meeting workers at their boarding houses and making contact through their social networks. Most of these workers have migrated from rural areas and know little about their workplace rights.

A trade union branch was set up at S.G I. Lanka (pvt) Ltd - one of the 16 target factories, and the management informed by FTZ&GSEU. Soon after, union members were victimised and the branch president, treasurer and assistant secretary were suspended. FTZ&GSEU made representations to S.G.I Lanka (pvt) Ltd on their behalf and following negotiations, the workers were reinstated. At another factory, Koggalla Garments Ltd, task force members are trying to organise workers discretely, perceiving the management to be 'totally anti-union'.

Union organising and collective bargaining continue to be actively discouraged in Sri Lanka. Although legislation requires recognition of any union representing more than 40 per cent of workers at a workplace, employers and the Commissioner of Labour often delay or never hold the votes required to demonstrate reaching the 40 per cent threshold. In the run up to such votes, employers often fire union activists and intimidate employees. Trade union activists from outside EPZs are not allowed inside without employer permission, and government labour inspectors are not allowed to conduct unannounced visits inside EPZs. These restrictions make it difficult to uphold legislated rights, and for unions like the FTZ&GSEU to organise workers. The maximum fine for employers found guilty of anti-union discrimination is around 20,000Rs (£112). The ITUC report to the WTO General Council concludes that 'Workers have legal rights to organise unions and bargain collectively, but these rights are suppressed in practice, especially in Export Processing Zones. The right to strike is curtailed by an expansive conception of essential services.'

The Sri Lankan government's Board of Investment (BOI), which sets wages and conditions in EPZs, has been promoting employer-sponsored 'employee councils' as a substitute for free trade unions. These councils were operating in the majority of factories selected for organising. Employee councils do not elect worker representatives, but instead, employers often select workers and provide the necessary finance to the council. According to the FTZ&GSEU, company management also tend to set the meeting agenda and limit discussion to avoid issues like wage levels and working conditions.

In addition to dealing with these challenges, the FTZ&GSEU is having to put additional resources into proactively engaging with brands and buyers to persuade them not to follow government advice to relocate production to the north and east of Sri Lanka, to protect the long-term interests of workers.

Campaigning for better wages

Low wages were commonplace across all the factories surveyed, with workers reporting that they are unable to meet their basic needs on the salary they received. The minimum wage in the sector is 7,900 Rs (£44.26), but the living wage has been estimated at 18,856Rs (£105.63) per month.

To address the issue of poverty wages, the FTZ&GSEU has been running a wage campaign as part of the project, working with the Apparel Industry Labour Rights Movement (AlaRM), and has published a range of materials to mobilise workers. The campaign has led to government support for a 20 per cent increase (2,500Rs, £13.90) in the minimum wage for workers in the apparel sector, which will benefit newly recruited workers.

From November 2010, the union has been seeking to build on this achievement by campaigning with AlaRM for a 30 per cent increase in the basic wage (approx £13.40-£16.70 more per month) for all workers in factories covered by the government's BOI. The Sri Lankan government, despite being a signatory to ILO convention 144 on social dialogue & tripartism, did not consult with the unions before proposing a meagre wage increase of 500Rs per month (£2.80). In a letter to the Minister for Economic Development regarding the 30 per cent wage increase, FTZ&GSEU's joint General Secretary, Anton Marcus, highlights: the impact of the global economic, food and fuel crisis on workers; that the previously agreed 20 per cent increase will not apply to those working in EPZs for some time; and the BOI's lack of recognition of convention 144 - with the union calling for social dialogue on these issues.

Major sportswear brands stand to make millions from the London Olympics - and workers should get their fair share of the profits.

Striving for gender equality

Although discrimination is recognize as a violation of fundamental rights under Sri Lanka's Constitution, women continue to be paid less than men for work of equal value. Women are also over-represented in low-wage, low- skilled work, making up the majority of workers in sportswear manufacturing, and 90 per cent of workers in the garment sector. According to the ITUC, discrimination and sexual harassment are commonplace.

The organising project has a strong gender component and has run training to educate female workers about their workplace rights. Women make up 40 per cent of the project's trade union organising task forces, and when possible, female activists visit the workers' boarding houses with male colleagues to enable group discussions about gender and rights. All training directed at leadership covers gender equality and the union itself actively encourages the election of women when branches are being formed.

Organising to negotiate for better conditions

Production targets for garment workers, counted in minutes, are increasing almost daily, state the FTZ&GSEU, and employers have developed new incentives to 'encourage' workers to meet them. The baseline survey showed that some workers even work during their meal-times, and go without drinking enough water or taking adequate toilet breaks so they can meet the target and receive the incentive to boost their low wages. The survey also found that workers may be punished for not reaching their target by pay cuts, having to complete the target after normal hours - without overtime, sectional transfers, or being verbally abused.

Low wages in this sector act as indirect pressure to work overtime, and excessive hours, low pay and poor working conditions are a health and safety risk to workers. For example, a study by the Sri Lankan Labour Department found that 66 per cent of female garment workers, higher than the national average, are anaemic. FTZ&GSEU reports that workers having to stand for long periods of time is leading to health problems, and inhaling fabric dust over years has resulted in many suffering from respiratory disorders. Organising these workers will therefore put them in a stronger position to negotiate with their employer for more realistic production targets and better health and safety provisions.

Going further than brands' code of conduct

Unrealistic production targets also arise when brands place urgent or last minute orders - thereby putting increased pressure on the workers in the expectation that they can work 'flexibly'. For the private sector, the normal working week is 45 hours and the legal maximum overtime 60 hours per month for women, men are discriminated against - not being protected by legislation. Although most brands' codes of conduct require suppliers to abide by local laws, their purchasing practices, such as placing last minute orders, can contribute to labour law violations. The project baseline survey found that one supplier maintained two sets of records - a real account of working hours and another version to show auditors and labour inspectors.

Brands require that their codes of conduct are displayed in the local language in an area where workers have easy access, but a number of workers interviewed for FTZ&GSEU's survey indicated that they did not know about brands'codes of conduct. In some cases, the code of conduct was translated and displayed in the manager's office. Some workers also reported that when auditors visit on behalf of a brand, employers make the necessary improvements to pass the audit and select which workers the auditors will talk to. Project partner, the ITGLWF has been in dialogue with several UK brands sourcing from Sri Lanka in an effort to help create a more favourable environment for organising in their supply chains.

World Day for Decent Work

World Day for Decent Work

For World Day for Decent Work, the FTZ&GSEU brought together 94 garment workers for a seminar on 10 October 2010, as part of the project. The workers, 20 per cent of whom are involved in production for major sportswear brands such as Adidas, Nike and Puma, were given a presentation on the principles of decent work and their workplace rights. To follow up, workers provided an assessment of whether they believed these conditions were being met in their workplaces. The results were concerning: 66 per cent of workers stated that there was no dignity in the job that they were doing; 65 per cent reported that international conventions on workplace rights were not respected; and 89 per cent said that they were not being paid a living wage.


Brands sourcing from Sri Lanka, including Adidas, Nike, Puma, Speedo and Reebok still have a long way to go to ensure that the rights of workers in their supply chains are respected. The only way to increase workplace rights and alleviate poverty is through workers organising in free trade unions. Brands need to work with suppliers to promote a positive climate for freedom of association so that workers are free to organise and secure their rights.

We can support Sri Lankan sportswear workers, and sportswear workers around the globe, by taking the Playfair 2012 action to demand that Adidas, Nike and Speedo raise the bar on workers' rights - so we can all enjoy a sweat-free London 2012 Games.

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