Around 20,000 garment workers who were unable to return to their homes amidst the sudden imposition of curfew are abandoned in the Katunayake Free Trade Zone facing a difficult time.
Trapped in an area designated as a high-risk zone for the Corona Pandemic, these women are facing a severe shortage of food and many hygiene problems.
Given that the transportation between districts are restricted in the imposition of curfew, they were seen arriving in groups at the Awariwatta Police Station in Katunayake seeking permission to return to their homes.
But the Police turned them down saying that they have no authority to grant permission.
Gates closed and made us work following President's order!
Export-oriented industries at the behest of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa were turned into essential services in the wake of the Corona Pandemic in a bid to ease the melting down of the country's economy. Accordingly, this was announced by Prime Ministerial Secretary P.B. Jayasundara. Chamila Thushari, Program Coordinator of 'Dabindu' Collective, a known voice for rights of free trade zone workers, had the following to say:
"This is the letter adopted in making these girls work. Some companies closed the gates and made them work until the 19th. In the end, they did not even provide any relief, transportation to the least, for them to return to their homes."
The vast majority of these free trade zone workers are hundreds of kilometres away from home, and many among them are from the North and the East.
A mass shortage of food
Trapped an abandoned, these women are facing a mass shortage of food. The vast majority of the workers used to fill their bellies for breakfast and lunch from the cafeterias attached to the garments. Returned to boarding places, they reach a small shop nearby for dinner. They are accustomed to buying groceries from these shops on the basis of paying back when they receive the monthly wage. However, in the midst of uncertainty given the prevailing situation, the shopkeepers had refused to issue them food.
The government on Tuesday (24) announced that a mobile vehicle service would be implemented in providing food and essential items at a continuous supply in the curfew's awakening. Chamila Thushari of Dabindu Collective said:
"Although these mobile carts are on the go, the girls have no money to purchase anything. They are not allowed to go to ATM machines..."
It was also observed that the crisis has forced some people to starve with their children and families combined. Although some civil organizations have taken measures to supply them food, the government has to bear the responsibility of over twenty thousand people suffering in this hollow shell.
30 - 40 in one boarding, sanitation not relevant!
These women are accustomed to staying at temporary accommodation in a congested urban area with 30-40 people in one boarding. Their sanitation depends on public toilets, whereas the risk of Coronavirus would be at its highest.
If the government's aim to impose curfew is to home-quarantine the public, we question how will this be achieved by simply locking up a large number of people in one place. Needless to say, that in the backdrop the risk of spreading the disease among these women are very high despite the government's efforts to curb the outbreak.
It was also revealed that these women's safety has been compromised, as a construction project is currently underway near the Katunayake International Airport and around 500 male workers are accommodated in the said area. Sometimes these ladies' lodgings are seen as mixed boarding places, by which their safety could be at a potential risk.
This is a humanitarian crisis - Bimal Rathnayake
This is a humanitarian crisis said Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) former parliamentarian Bimal Rathnayake. "When the public is inconvenienced due to the corona pandemic in general, these people are trapped in a place without food, money and security."
The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) raised on the matter the moment the garment sector was declared an essential service by the President, he reminded. "Given the way these garment factories are set up, keeping a metre's distance is practically impossible. There's also a big problem with sanitation..."
"The airport acted as a hub for dragging the corona virus pandemic in to the country. This groups is confined into one place with the workers at the airport. This is a matter of hygiene as well as security."
Mr. Rathnayake also stressed that the majority of the trapped are residents of the North and the East and even a temporary lift of curfew, for a couple of hours, would not fill up to returning to their homes.
"Therefore, the government must intervene in this matter. When trade unions leaders raised this matter yesterday, they were responded that there are no such workers in the said area. Some have said to show them if they exist, while some said that meal packs were supplied to around 15 of them..!" he urged.
BOI and Labour Dept silent?
In the backdrop, the government, the heads of the Export Processing Zone and the Labour Department cannot get away from the responsibility of returning these over 20,000 workers safely to their homes, for they are being deprived of their necessities, food and even fundamental rights. Living in a high risk zone for the Corona Pandemic, the risk of the disease being spread is high.
Although this article centres around the events at the Katunayake Free Trade Zone, the risk remains same at other free trade zones, including Biyagama.
This problem must be addressed and intervened by the employers, heads of the Export Processing Zone, the President, the Labour Department and the government in general as they have made these women retain at their workstations against their will amid a public health crisis, leaving them to suffer without being able to return to their homes and now stuck in their boarding places without food, security and sanitation.