BRANDIX CAUGHT IN COVID-19 MESS

Ap­parel man­u­fac­turer re­sponds to mount­ing al­le­ga­tions as con­cerns are raised Work­ers were sent home with­out con­duct­ing PCR tests

Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka) - - FRONT PAGE - By Ka­man­thi Wick­ra­mas­inghe

With over 1000 gar­ment work­ers from the Min­uwan­goda fac­tory test­ing pos­i­tive for COVID-19, sev­eral al­le­ga­tions were lev­elled against the par­ent com­pany – Brandix Ap­parel Lim­ited about how they han­dled the up­surge of cases. At the on­set of the in­def­i­nite cur­few pe­riod in March, many gar­ment work­ers were at the re­ceiv­ing end of a chal­leng­ing sit­u­a­tion where many ju­nior work­ers lost their jobs and those who went on leave weren’t paid. In this back­drop an­other pe­riod of un­em­ploy­ment would cer­tainly add to their bur­dens. On the other hand, health au­thor­i­ties are speed­ing up the process of con­tact trac­ing to de­tect more cases.

They are help­less and would work any­where to earn money. They have to pay board­ing fees, util­ity bills and some even have to send money home. But they are not even be­ing looked af­ter

Most work­ers were de­ployed from man­power agen­cies

Rights group in FTZ com­plains poor liv­ing con­di­tions and se­vere hard­ships

Com­pany says ma­jor­ity COVID-19 pos­i­tive em­ploy­ees have proven to be asymp­to­matic

CON­CERNS TO BE AD­DRESSED IM­ME­DI­ATELY

Ac­cord­ing to Chamila Thushari, Pro­gramme Co­or­di­na­tor at Dabindu Col­lec­tive – a non­profit or­gan­i­sa­tion ad­vo­cat­ing to pro­tect and pro­mote rights of fe­male work­ers in the Free Trade Zone, around 2000-3000 gar­ment work­ers were un­em­ployed at the on­set of the cur­few in March. “Af­ter the case was de­tected from the Min­uwan­goda fac­tory, all work­ers from this fac­tory and the Katu­nayake fac­tory were sent home. This is with­out con­duct­ing PCR tests on them and this is a very risky sit­u­a­tion. An­other is­sue is that most work­ers have been de­ployed from man­power agen­cies and they work on a ro­ta­tional ba­sis. There­fore if there are less work­ers in one fac­tory, the agency would send a group of work­ers to that fac­tory and the same group would go to an­other fac­tory on the fol­low­ing day and so on. This had been prac­tised by fac­to­ries com­ing un­der this chain for a while. The work­ers are sup­posed to re­ceive their salaries on the 10th of this month but due to the pre­vail­ing sit­u­a­tion they will not get their share ei­ther.

“Spec­u­la­tion is rife whether the virus spread from the hu­man re­sources team that vis­its these fac­to­ries ev­ery day. An­other con­cern is that a hus­band and wife would work in two dif­fer­ent fac­to­ries, but would live in the same board­ing room,” she added.

Thushari fur­ther said that sev­eral other fac­to­ries have closed down and work­ers who lost jobs were em­ployed in other fac­to­ries man­u­fac­tur­ing var­i­ous prod­ucts; some which even op­er­ate un­der haz­ardous con­di­tions. “They are help­less and would work any­where to earn money. They have to pay board­ing fees, util­ity bills and some even have to send money home. But they are not even be­ing looked af­ter,” she com­plained.

In a let­ter is­sued to the Labour De­part­ment, the Col­lec­tive fur­ther re­quests the Gov­ern­ment to de­ploy Pub­lic Health In­spec­tors (PHIS) to iden­tify close con­tacts, con­duct PCR tests on gar­ment work­ers cur­rently boarded at the FTZ, keep them in self-iso­la­tion within FTZ with­out send­ing them home, ar­range a mech­a­nism to pro­vide food and es­sen­tials to work­ers if an in­def­i­nite cur­few pe­riod is de­clared, com­mu­ni­cate im­por­tant de­tails in Tamil as there are many Tamil speak­ing work­ers within the gar­ment worker com­mu­nity and con­duct a thor­ough in­ves­ti­ga­tion as to how the in­fec­tion spread from a fac­tory com­ing un­der the Brandix chain.

CER­TAIN WORK­ERS GIVEN LEAVE

Gar­ment work­ers face many hard­ships while try­ing to make ends meet. Speak­ing to Daily Mir­ror on con­di­tions of anonymity, two work­ers at the Katu­nayake fac­tory ex­pressed their fears. “We work on two shifts, one from 8.00am-5.00pm and the other from 2.00pm-10.00pm. A board­ing room would cost be­tween Rs. 5000-8000. When we leave, we have to take our be­long­ings. If not we have to pay the rent even though we aren’t phys­i­cally there,” the source said.

She fur­ther said that at the on­set of the cur­few in March, those who couldn’t go home didn’t even have a place to find food. How­ever the com­pany had asked them to take leave till Mon­day if they feared work­ing un­der the pre­vail­ing sit­u­a­tion. How­ever, em­ploy­ees in cer­tain sections such as pack­ag­ing are con­tin­u­ing to work.

PHIS RE­QUEST SUP­PORT FROM PUB­LIC

A video cir­cu­lat­ing on so­cial me­dia showed sev­eral gar­ment fac­tory work­ers blam­ing PHIS for not con­duct­ing PCR tests. When asked, Pub­lic Health In­spec­tor Union sec­re­tary M. Bala­sooriya said that the role of the PHIS is to help iden­tify close con­tacts, find pa­tients, en­force quar­an­tine reg­u­la­tions and en­sure that COVID-19 pa­tients are hos­pi­talised. “At the on­set of the in­ci­dent around 2000 PCR tests were con­ducted and we may have missed out on cer­tain peo­ple. But we con­ducted tests on those whom we missed out as well. We are ex­tend­ing our ser­vices with lim­ited hu­man re­sources and there could be cer­tain is­sues. What we re­quire is the sup­port from peo­ple to con­tinue our work,” said Bala­sooriya. So far 12 PHIS are work­ing in Divu­lapi­tiya while 14 oth­ers are work­ing in Min­uwan­goda. Around 200 of them have been de­ployed in the Gam­paha district. How­ever Bala­sooriya said that 40 other PHIS from Ku­rune­gala, Put­ta­lam, Ke­galle and Colombo will join the team from to­day. The to­tal num­ber of PHIS is 1710.

AL­LE­GA­TIONS PILE UP

Fol­low­ing the de­tec­tion of a COVID-19 pa­tient Brandix ini­tially re­leased an of­fi­cial state­ment stat­ing that a rig­or­ous pro­to­col was im­ple­mented across Brandix along with the im­me­di­ate re­sponse and sup­port from the PHI.

It said that they con­tinue to as­sist rel­e­vant au­thor­i­ties and take all nec­es­sary mea­sures to en­sure com­plete con­tain­ment of the virus. How­ever, sev­eral of their fac­to­ries in See­duwa, Ekala and Ja-ela are still con­tin­u­ing oper­a­tions. A fol­low-up state­ment is­sued on Oc­to­ber 6 said that one of the chal­lenges they have ‘re­gret­tably’ ex­pe­ri­enced is that a ma­jor­ity of COVID-19 pos­i­tive em­ploy­ees have proven to be asymp­to­matic. In its con­clu­sion it states that the well-be­ing of its em­ploy­ees, the com­mu­nity and the na­tion con­tinue to be their top pri­or­ity.

What’s both in­trigu­ing and per­plex­ing at this junc­ture are the ef­forts made us­ing a cam­paign on so­cial me­dia con­vey­ing sym­pa­thy and con­cern re­gard­ing the welfare of these em­ploy­ees who have con­tracted COVID-19.

How­ever some ques­tions re­main un­ad­dressed. For in­stance, did Brandix work­ers who were brought in on char­tered flights from In­dia fol­low proper test­ing pro­ce­dures be­fore board­ing the flights? Did Brandix quar­an­tine the work­ers from In­dia in their cor­po­rate pri­vate fa­cil­i­ties?

And were work­ers with COVID-19 symp­toms asked to report to work? BRANDIX RE­SPONDS

In a fresh state­ment is­sued by Brandix Ap­parel Lim­ited, the ap­parel man­u­fac­turer stated that no par­ties from In­dia or any other coun­try had ac­cess to the Min­uwan­goda fa­cil­ity. Re­spond­ing to al­le­ga­tions and spec­u­la­tion rife on so­cial me­dia that the work­ers repa­tri­ated from In­dia didn’t ad­here to quar­an­tine pro­ce­dures, the state­ment fur­ther added that they were Sri Lankan em­ploy­ees while men­tion­ing that the Gov­ern­ment man­dated 28-day quar­an­tine pro­ce­dure was fol­lowed by them and their fam­i­lies were brought back via char­tered flights.

Many gar­ment work­ers were sent home dur­ing the in­def­i­nite cur­few pe­riod ir­re­spec­tive of health guide­lines

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