The Solidarity Center is sickened and saddened by the senseless bombings that killed and injured hundreds of people Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka. The organization, which works throughout the country and the world with workers across ethnic and religious lines, deplores the use of violence and offers its deepest condolences to the victims’ families and friends, and to the Sri Lankan people.
Solidarity Center staff and families in country are accounted for and safe, as are those of its partners.
“The mass murder of workers and people going about their day is despicable,” says Alonzo Suson, Solidarity Center Sri Lanka country program director.
Tim Ryan, Solidarity Center Asia regional program director, served as Sri Lanka program director in the 1990s and has a longstanding appreciation for the island and its people:
“Our organization stands in solidarity with the people of Sri Lanka in this difficult time,” he says. “And we all hope for the speedy recovery of the more than 500 people who were injured.”
Union members in Colombo, Sri Lanka, successfully lobbied for a safer workplace by convincing their company to improve policy guidelines to help prevent gender-based violations in the workplace.
Union members in Sri Lanka celebrate a new workplace policy addressing sexual harassment. Credit: Solidarity Center/Sean Stephens
The effort was inspired by a Solidarity Center awareness-raising training in December on gender-based violence at work in which four workers from the South Asia Gateway Terminal (SAGT)—Ansley De Bruin, Mayura Kanchana, Nilanka Rathnayake and Ruwan Weerasinghe—took part. SAGT operates in Colombo’s shipping port.
“We have spoken to our [human resources] department many times over the past two years on setting a policy against gender-based violence in the workplace,” says Ansley De Bruin, youth wing president of the National Union of Seafarers Sri Lanka (NUSS). “We realized that it would be a hard push to get a code of conduct put in place regarding gender-based violence, so we felt the best thing to push for would be a whistleblower policy.”
After the training, the four participants again met with human resources. Based on their proposal, the organization not only introduced a whistleblower policy a couple of weeks later but also released a separate policy against sexual harassment.
De Bruin says he is grateful SAGT understands its workers’ fundamental rights to a safe, violence-free workplace.
“This is not only a victory for the union but also for the organization and its staff. I would like to thank my organization the South Asia Gateway Terminal for hearing and implementing a system that protects all its staff.”
Just outside Sri Lanka’s Bandaranaike International Airport, where more than 2 million tourists start their vacations each year, a different reality unfolds in the Katunayake export processing zone (EPZ).
There, thousands of garment workers take their places in factories guarded by electrified fencing to begin long days for little pay, forced to endure grueling production cycles with managers refusing to grant even unpaid sick leave. Sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence are a daily part of the job, they say, often with economic repercussions.
“Women are made to stand and work and when engineers fix machines, they touch the women,” says PK Chamila Thushari, program coordinator for the Dabindu Collective union. “When they complain, engineers don’t fix the machines, which means they can’t meet their quota. The only they way they can earn a good living is to hit the targets set by the bonus,” she says, speaking through a translator.
Yet only 2.8 percent of the revenue comes to the garment workers who cut, sew and package clothes for international brands, says Thushari, and most are malnourished, suffer from anemia, and struggle to feed and educate their children. The cost of living for a family of four—without rent—is $549 a month in urban areas like Colombo, near the Katunayake EPZ.
Workers Fear Reporting Gender-Based Violence at Work
Gender-based violence in garment factories is so common “people have kind of become numb to it.” Credit: Solidarity Center/Sean Stephens
Dabindu (drops of sweat in Sinhalese), launched in 1984 as a local organization to advocate and promote women workers’ rights, transitioned to become a union last year at the request of its members, says Thushari, who has been with the organization for 22 years. In addition to advocating for improved wages, the union is focused on educating women about their rights to a workplace free of gender-based violence.
As is the case at workplaces around the world, Dabindu has found one of the biggest hurdles to addressing sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence is women’s fear of reporting it.
Also, “because this happens so often in garment factories, people have kind of become numb to it,” says Thushari. Dabindu creates awareness programs and trains workers to become leaders on the issue. Because workers are fearful of speaking to employers or the police about abusive incidents, the worker-leaders share their experiences with the union, which takes the information to factory management, multinational brands and others so they may address the problem.
Importantly, it took time for Dabindu to develop trust among the workers so they would feel comfortable sharing their experiences with the union, says Thushari.
Connecting Garment Workers Across the Country
Since the end of the country’s 26-year civil war in 2009, which claimed roughly 100,000 lives, Tamil women, many widowed, have journeyed from the north for employment in garment factories at Katunayake and other southern areas with Sinhala majorities. Many experience difficulties because they do not understand the language, and garment factories often require Tamil women to meet higher targets, says Thushari.
Dabindu is working to foster better understanding between the Sinhala and Tamil garment workers by holding daylong “youth camps,” bringing the women together in a relaxed setting, and also is sponsoring trips for garment workers to war-torn northern Sri Lanka to enable women see the difficult living conditions there that are driving Tamil women to seek employment far from their homes. The union is expanding its program to offer women in the north a chance to travel to the south.
“Sometimes, workers are in tears when they see the difficult living conditions, and that brings them closer to each other,” says Thushari.
Nearly 50 cleaning-sector employees from offices throughout Jaffna, Sri Lanka, discussed strategies for addressing gender-based violence at work and how unions can be instrumental in empowering workers to tackle the problem during a recent Solidarity Center training.
For most participants, the gender equality at work session was their first exposure to the issue. Credit: Solidarity Center/Suthakar
The 28 women and 18 men who provide cleaning services for courts, banks and finance companies began the daylong workshop with a discussion on how workers can be discriminated against based on gender, one aspect of which is gender-based violence at work.
Gender-based violence at work takes multiple forms, including physical and verbal abuse and sexual assault targeted at an individual based on gender. The Solidarity Center is taking part in a global campaign for passage of an International Labor Organization (ILO) convention covering gender-based violence at work.
For most participants, the gender equality workshop was their first experience discussing the issue, and some shared that were not aware of constitutes gender- based violence at work.
Credit: Solidarity Center/Suthakar
Participants also noted that some of their transgender co-workers frequently are bullied by employers, co-workers and office staff.
Participants also heard from labor lawyers on their fundamental workplace rights, with some saying they did not know they had the right to be paid overtime, double pay on holidays or even that they could form a union. Participants raised many questions about how best to overcome the obstacles they faced in forming unions.
Because “cleaning-sector employees are a very vulnerable working sector, this session aimed to improve their awareness level of basic labor rights and practices,” says Rubini Nishanth, Solidarity Center legal counsel in Jaffna, who moderated the workshop.
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