From Sri Lanka to London 2012 – a global campaign for a sweat-free Olympics

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From Sri Lanka to London 2012 - a global campaign for a sweat-free Olympics

Nirosha Dewage, co-President, Free Trade Zones and General Services Employees Trade Union

In the UK, sportswear sales were estimated at £4.5 billion in 2010, with Adidas and Nike the global leaders, and Pentland (makers of Speedo) the largest UK-based brand. These household names will have a high profile at London 2012, and their sales and profits are predicted to rise as the Games approach.

Adidas, Nike and Speedo all source their products from Sri Lanka. To find out more about the conditions for workers there, the Playfair 2012 campaign invited the co-President of the Free Trade Zones and General Services Employees Trade Union (FTZ&GSEU), Nirosha Priyadarshini Manankanda Dewage, to the UK in April for a national speaker tour - London 2012: Playing by the rules on workers' rights?

Events took place in London, Nottingham (with Prospect), Liverpool (with ATL), Newcastle (with TUC, Labour Behind the Label, UNISON and PCS), Harrogate (with NUT) and Glasgow (with NASUWT). Nirosha also visited Burberry's factory in Castleford with GMB and met union reps there.

TUC Playfair Project Officer Sharon Sukhram spent time with Nirosha during her whistlestop tour of the UK to find out more about what makes her tick.

How did you become involved in union activities?

I worked as a garment worker for 17 years in Sri Lanka and for a short time in Oman and I was the main breadwinner for my family. In 2003, the company I was working for in Sri Lanka, Gartex, stopped making its legally required contributions into a welfare fund for workers, but deductions from our salaries continued.

Some of us took this up with the Employees'Council, but there was no outcome, so we sought advice from the FTZ&GSEU, and as a result, 200 workers joined the union. We elected representatives, but the branch secretary was suspended after a worker said he had been forced to join. The FTZ&GSEU took up the case and I became branch secretary. Although the union eventually won the case in 2007, by then the factory had closed down.

I was elected co-President of the FTZ&GSEU in 2005 and continued to work as a machine operator until 2007. With the support of the union, I've been able to learn more about workplace rights and Sri Lanka's employment laws. I've also been on exchange visits to Vietnam and India to share information and best practice with unions there.

These days I am busy speaking at rallies, events and workshops. I am also on the task force that my union set up as part of a project with the TUC and the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers Federation (ITGLWF) to organise sportswear workers. The project has enabled us to train organisers and develop an organising strategy.

What are the main issues facing sportswear workers?

Poverty wages - the legal minimum wage in Sri Lanka is Rs7,900 (£45 per month). Although workers making goods for Adidas, Nike and Speedo tend to get paid Rs10,000 (£55 per month) this is still below the official UN global poverty line of $2 a day. People can't meet their basic needs with this meagre wage. A recent survey by the Sri Lankan government found that 67 per cent of women working in the garment sector are suffering from anaemia because of poor diet.

Low wages mean that workers have to do overtime to make ends meet. At busy times workers have no choice but to do overtime and come under extreme pressure to get the order finished on time. Recent research by my union found one Speedo supplier using a two-card system for recording overtime. A yellow card was used to record real overtime hours worked, which could exceed the legal limit of 60 hours per month, and a white card was used to record fake overtime hours. Workers believe that management did this to mislead auditors.

Production targets are also unrealistic and are never discussed or agreed with the workers or their union. Sometimes workers are expected to sew as many as 100 pieces in one hour. For example, attaching two sleeves to a garment is regarded as finishing one piece which means workers have just 0.3 seconds to sew each sleeve on. It's also common for workers to be verbally abused to pressure them in to reaching their targets.

Sri Lankan sportswear workers campaigning for better pay

The FTZ&GSEU is currently campaigning for the minimum wage to be increased to Rs10,000. This aims to involve employers, workers and the government, and hopes to avoid previous situations where factory owners and the government have agreed small wage increases without consulting the workforce. For the long term, my union is campaigning for a living wage, which we've estimated at Rs23,500 (£131 per month - nearly three times the current minimum wage).

Discrimination - women make up around 85 per cent of workers in the garment industry. This industry is the second biggest earner for the Sri Lankan economy, after money sent back by domestic workers employed overseas. These mainly female garment workers are looked down upon by the rest of society. Many are young women who have migrated from rural areas and know little about their workplace rights - and most of them are the main breadwinners for their families.

Many suppliers ask if the women are married when they go for an interview and if they say they are married, they are subtly discouraged from having children for a while. When my union looked into this, we found that two companies supplying to Adidas and Nike made potential employees take a pregnancy test at interview stage and pregnant workers were not hired.

There is a perception in Sri Lankan society that women can only do delicate work which can be combined with looking after the house and children. There are few opportunities for women to be promoted and men are seen as more effective managers. There is also a lack of female representation in local government and parliament. At the moment, only 12 out of 225 MPs are women.

London 2012: Playing by the rules on workers? rights? London event

When I first became involved in union activities, people spread a lot of rumours about me. This kind of attitude puts women off becoming involved in unions. Fortunately for me, my family allowed me both to attend workshops and to travel. So now when my union runs workshops on workers' rights, we encourage both the husband and wife to come along, so they both learn about their rights and this goes some way towards breaking down barriers and promoting gender equality. We are also campaigning for 30 per cent of the parliament to be female.

Hostility to unions - the FTZ&GSEU organises about 16,000 workers in Sri Lanka's free trade zones, and until 1994 it was illegal to establish a union here. In the garment sector only about ten per cent of workers belong to a union.

Fear is a major factor that puts people off joining. Some workers have seen others lose their jobs because of their involvement in unions and they are worried the same might happen to them. A lot of suppliers see unions as organisations that mislead workers and disrupt business, and say a union presence means fewer orders, which will affect profits. For example, one supplier recently closed down due to financial difficulties, but rumours went around that it was because a union had formed in the factory.

Some employers tell workers not to speak to 'external organisations' if they have concerns, but to raise them instead with human resources, the joint consultative committee or employees' councils. These are not the same as independent trade unions.

At the moment my union cannot go into a factory to try to organise the workers, even though Sri Lanka has signed the International Labour Conventions on the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining. There are only four collective bargaining agreements, and three of these apply to one company, even though there are 250 garment factories in the free trade zones. Where there are collective bargaining agreements, my union is involved in representing the workers.

To try to get around the barriers, my union is trying to make contact with the workers by visiting their lodgings in the evenings. We give them information and talk to them about rights and wages. When we organise events for International Women's Day and World Day for Decent Work, for example, we encourage workers to come along. Slowly we are building the trust of workers.

How can people in the UK support sportswear workers in Sri Lanka?

There are a number of things people in the UK can do to raise the profile of the workplace conditions of the sportswear workers in Sri Lanka and help bring about change:

Support Playfair 2012 and take the campaign action to put pressure on sportswear brands like Adidas, Nike and Speedo to pay a living wage and improve conditions for workers making their products. Tell your friends and family to get involved too

Read our new research into working conditions for sportswear workers - carried out with ITGLWF. It's part of wider research also looking at conditions in the Philippines and Indonesia. This is a global problem and needs international support and activism to deliver change, otherwise brands will just keep moving from one country to another in search of lower paid workers.

Find out more about the TUC project with our union - there could be opportunities for similar kinds of joint working.

The Olympics is a world class sporting event - this should mean that all workers involved in making the Games possible, whether in the UK, Sri Lanka or another part of the world, are treated with dignity and have their rights respected.

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