Trade unions jittery over Investment Promotion minister’s statement

By Lal Gunasekera

Free Trade Zones and General Services Employees Union (FTZ & GSEU) questions the statement made by Investment Promotion Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene at the Ministerial Parliamentary Consultative Committee (PCC) on September 4, that the government will not intervene to lay down conditions as to how workers should be employed in foreign collaborated factories as it would hinder foreign investment from coming into Sri Lanka.

Secretary of the FTZ & GSEU Anton Marcus told The Island Financial Review that Minister Abeywardene was responding to Kalutara District Parliamentarian Vidura Wickremanayake who raised the issue of a private factory employing labour through a manpower agency and who are heavily exploited as daily paid wage labour.

Marcs said that this was not a single isolated case as there are companies within the Katunayake and Biyagama Export Promotion Zones where such contract labour had been employed for core production and where no permanent labour had been employed. He says that this is a growing cancer within the labour employment.

He said that the FTZ & GSEU are concerned over two issues mentioned by Minister Abeywardene at the PCC having an adverse impact on both Sri Lankan labour and development. He said that the type of investors that have been lured to come to Sri Lanka at the expense of tax payers money have often been total fraudsters and defaulters with most fleeing the country after obtaining massive loans from State Bank, and without paying wages, ETF, Gratuity and compensation legally due to workers.

Marcus said that it was Minister of Labour and Labour Relations Gamini Lokuge who raised this issue with President Mahinda Rajapakse as early as February. He said that Sri Lankan experience has proved, providing heavily exploitative environments as incentives do not bring decent and credible investors, but defaulters and fraudsters, wanting quick money. The FTZ & GSEU, Marcus says, demands that Minister Abeywardene publish a list of foreign investors who have fled the country and monies they owe to state banks and workers as available with the Board of Investment (BOI) under Minister Abeywardene’s purview.

Marcus says that the other issue of concern is about heavy exploitation that prevails when the government sits back and allows labour contractors to exploit rural and semi urban unemployment. He also draws Minister Abeywardene’s attention of a statement made by the Senior Legal Advisor at the Ministry of Labour and Labour Relations, who presented a concept paper to the National Labour Advisory Council (NLAC) on August 2 this year (2013).

Marcus says that this concept paper states that Minister of Labour intends to formulate legislation to control the supply of labour to various private organizations by manpower agencies and such other organizations, where labour undergo harassments by employers changing hands frequently. These workers very often are not paid their wages (daily, weekly or monthly) regularly and due wages as per market rates are not given despite denial of minimum wages at certain occasion.

Neither their social protection by way of social security measures such as contributions to EPF, ETF, payments under Gratuities Act are observed. The privileged of leave or different types of public holidays in terms of the Wages Boards Ordinance and the Shop and Office Act are alien to them. Categories like women, disabled, sick persons (being sick while in employment), young persons are not adequately protected or covered under concession accord under other laws. The rights of labour such as the freedom of association, unionization, combinations, affiliations or federations etc are beyond their reach.

Bulk of the labour provided by manpower agencies have become a commodity rather than a human being who should be protected under the recognized labour standards and their recognition as social partner in development is ignored, states the concept paper.

The chief of the FTZ & GSEU said that they have raised all these issues with the BOI and also at the NLAC and are totally opposed to the approach of allowing companies to exploit labour on two counts. One it allows inhuman and unfair labour practices with heavy exploitation and such approach will not in any way benefit economic growth and development much needed in this country.

The FTZ & GSEU also demand that the two BOI circulars dated March 16, 2005 and October 4, 2005 on "Policy Guidelines on Employment of Casual/Temporary Workers and Contract Labour for BOI Factories’ issued for all BOI enterprises by the Chairman/Director General be immediately brought into effect and all factory owners advised accordingly.

The other demand of the FTZ & GSEU is the amendment to Section 45 of the Wages Board Ordinance as agreed at the NLAC that is kept in cold storage be immediately effected and enforced.

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