Sri Lanka: Free trade area workers organise

Submitted by Anon on 2 October, 2003 - 9:59

By the FTZ workers' union

At least two thousand "free trade zones" operate in more than seventy countries, employing between 70 and 100 million workers, 60-70% of whom are women, mostly under 30 years of age. The majority of companies in these zones are in the electronic, textile and leather industries.
The FTZWU (Free Trade Zone Workers' Union) is currently fighting a difficult battle for union rights at the Jaqalanka factory in Sri Lanka - a production site for several North American clothing firms. The factory is in the oldest and largest free trade zone in the country, home to 92 firms employing around 60,000 workers.

The conflict started when management wanted to cancel the traditional New Year's bonus, usually paid in April. On 4 April 2003, after a half-day stoppage, 220 of the 400 workers formed a branch of the FTZWU and elected their representatives. The next day they were prohibited from entering the premises.

The firm was able to obtain a government ruling that recognition for the FTZWU had to be subject to a referendum in which the union would have to win 40% of the votes for the union to be recognised.

The referendum was scheduled for July and an intimidation campaign was started in the factory. Workers were regularly summoned, team by team, to listen to "clarifications" by the general manager. Bosses threatened to close Jaqalanka if the trade union won the referendum, and publicly denigrated its leaders, several of whom were summoned individually to be intimidated. Two days before the referendum a visit by Nike auditors was used to spread the rumour that the company had just lost orders because of the union.

Only 17 workers dared to vote for the union when 205 were members. In July the branch secretary was assaulted in the street. Armed men threatened another union leader with death if she did not resign from the union.

However international pressure in defence of the union has started to mount. The FTZWU has demanded recognition of the union as membership forms have been filled in by 205 workers, a total exceeding the 40% required by the law.

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