Sri Lanka: Plantation female workers face covid and appalling conditions

A pre-covid protest by plantation workers on strike for SLR1,000s, Sri Lanka

Women workers constitute the vast majority toiling in Sri Lanka’s main export industries – clothing and tea. They are the two main groups facing the biggest risks from the current Covid 19 crisis.

Every day a large number of new patients are discovered amongst the workers in the garment factories. Many areas that have them, including the big Free Trade Zone of Katunayaka on the outskirts of the capital, Colombo, have been declared as severely affected by the pandemic.

The main reason for this is that most of the factories do not follow appropriate safety and healthcare guidelines for minimising the spread of the virus. Even though it is a serious issue, none of the factories has been closed because of it. Most of the factories’ workers have to carry out their normal workload, despite all the risks, and cover the labour shortages arising from deaths and illness. But they don’t get paid any extra amount for taking the risks or doing the extra work.

The majority of Covid patients in Sri Lanka are factory workers. Most of the women who work in these factories are now not allowed to stay in the company dormitories. They have to either travel home daily or, if that is not possible, search for somewhere nearby to sleep. Going home increases the risk of their family members getting infected with Covid19 and getting seriously ill with the deadly virus.

As most people do not want to give factory workers accommodation because of the high risk of infection, it has become increasingly difficult for these women to find a proper place to stay. Those staying at boarding houses have faced so much unpleasantness from the owners due to the stigma of possibly carrying the disease.

Factory-owners not following healthcare guidelines or doing enough to take protective measures are the main reason for this situation.

Plantations

The women who live and work on the tea plantations in Sri Lanka’s Hill Country also face severe problems. No health or safety regulations are carried out while they work at gathering their quota of leaves. They do not wear masks even.

The main reason for this is that their wages are so low that they are unable to buy them. But also, these women have had very little education and live in extreme poverty. They and their families live in cramped houses barely bigger than cattle stalls with squalid outdoor latrines. They live in constant fear of their children catching Covid 19.

For two years now, these women have been fighting for a daily minimum wage of Rs.1,000/= (5 USD) still without a proper solution. The plantation owners are refusing to implement the rise which got parliamentary approval last year.

It is these same owners who haven’t implemented any system to deal with the emerging corona crisis. Their excuse is that since the plantation workers live secluded from the rest of the country, the risk of them contracting the virus is minimal.

The truth is that many people who live on the plantations are now also working in urban areas. A considerable number of them actually work in garment factories that are now infested by the Covid19. The plantation owners ignore the risk of any of them carrying the disease to the plantations.

Despite all that, the government has not implemented any proper healthcare or safety measures to deal with the pandemic if it spreads into the Hill Country plantations. They have always received low attention from the government compared with the rest of the country.

The workers there have never received enough proper nutrition. It is doubtful that their immune systems are strong enough to fight a disease like Covid19.

Disaster

The government’s Covid eradication project has become a disaster. Vaccination is limited to the area of the capital, Colombo. No one knows when people in places like what is known as the ‘upcountry’ will receive the vaccine.

The government has created a committee called the “COVID-19 Suppression Task Force”, consisting of military officers instead of medical professionals. They have become the main shot-callers of giving directions on how to carry out the Covid eradication project. They are not bound to follow orders or guidelines from doctors or any other healthcare officials.

A situation has been created where plantation workers, factory workers and any marginalised people face a considerable risk of getting infected with the Covid19. Our party demands maximum protection for workers, whatever it costs the bosses and the government.

Military out of government – local and national! No attacks on the health service! Safe vaccinations for all!

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