Free Trade Zone workers in a recent protest
Disenchanted Free Trade Zone (FTZ) factory workers have staged a play in Colombo to highlight what they say are the poor working and living conditions they endure.
The play, Living Wage and Productivity, depicted their ongoing struggles and illustrated how the business community has neglected them and ignored their contributions to the national economy.
According to the Free Trade Zone and General Services Employees Union (FTZGSEU), there are about 300,000 FTZ workers in Sri Lanka who say they are the country’s biggest export earners, with their labor accounting for US$3.5 billion in revenue in 2010. Most of them only earn about $100 a month with overtime.
The Christian and Buddhist organizers of the play, which was performed earlier this week in Colombo’s Punchi Theater, said they wanted to make factory owners, managers, politicians and government officials aware of their problems.
“Many of us sleep on the floor, in cramped conditions and spend a third of our pay for the privilege yet we are bringing in billions of dollars for the country,” said Chrishanthi Mangalika, who works in a clothing factory.
“Compulsory overtime and almost impossible targets to complete orders causes more problems,” she said after the performance.
According to FTZGSEU leaders, the conditions the workers face are deterring others from seeking jobs.
“There are 30,000 vacancies at FTZ factories and nobody is applying for them because of the low wages and lack of facilities,” FTZGSEU joint secretary Anton Marcus told the audience after the play was over.
This, according to Marcus has prompted clothing factory owners to join the government in spending 95 million rupees ($862,000) on recruitment campaigns over the last two years.
He said solving all these problems is not difficult.
“If owners and managers talk with their workers and increase their basic salary workers will work hard and everyone can benefit,” said Marcus.
But Roshan Fernando, a Catholic clothing factory manager who watched the play, said owners are unable to increase salaries just like that.
“Our customers come to us because we offer goods at a cheap price. If we keep raising salaries our customers will have to pay more and will look elsewhere,” he said.
However, there has been some good news for Sri Lankan manufacturers, which workers hope could also benefit them.
The United States last week placed Sri Lanka on its Generalized System of Preferences program which is designed to promote economic growth in the developing world by allowing duty free entry into the US for around 4,800 products. However, the EU remains unconvinced afeter voicing concern over alleged human rights violations.