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SRI LANKA: U.S. Labour Review Comes on Top of EU Pressure

Feizal Samath

COLOMBO, Jul 4 2010 (IPS) - When garment factory workers outside Colombo once organised a noisy protest over a bonus issue, police threatened to file charges – of hostage taking — against them.

The Sri Lankan authorities zeroed in on hostage taking because the workers’ senior managers were inside the factory premises during the protest.

Hostage taking is worlds away from labour-related action, but rights advocates say this example, which occurred five years ago, shows the state’s approach to workers’ rights.

Amid international pressure, the government last year changed plans to use the hostage-taking law against the workers involved in this case. Instead, indictments were filed under regular laws around intimidation and threat against 35 former employees, 33 of whom are women.

“This is the kind of pressure we face in ensuring the rights of workers. Can you believe that these young women were to be charged for hostage taking?” asked Anton Marcus, convenor of the Free Trade Zone and General Services Employees Union.

Trade unions have long complained about the government’s refusal to accede to International Labour Organisation (ILO) rules on the Right of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining in the Workplace.

On Jun. 30, the U.S. government said it had accepted a petition from trade unions, filed by the American Federation of Labour and Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO) on behalf of Sri Lankan trade unions, to review workers’ rights in the country.

The U.S. action is linked to its annual review of the U.S. Generalised System of Preferences (GSP), in which Sri Lanka and other countries receive trade concessions on exports to the United States. The current 12-month GSP agreement runs until December 2010.

This adds to the pressure the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa is already under. It comes on the heels of human rights concerns expressed by the European Union, which has linked these to its trade concessions for the South Asian island nation.

In fact, a Jul. 1 deadline set by the EU, asking the government to give a written undertaking that it will improve rights concerns, passed without a response from Colombo.

According to Marcus, one of the main complaints in the trade unions’ petition to the U.S. government is the difficulty in forming unions and having collective bargaining agreements between workers and employers in the country.

For instance, he says, there are only four such agreements among the 300- odd factories in the garment sector, a key source of export revenue. Three of them are from one company, he adds. “What about the rest of the garment sector?” Marcus asked.

The lack of space for organising also means that workers can get fired for protesting employers’ actions such as the suspension of trade union activists. This happened in the case of 255 garment workers who protested a colleague’s dismissal some years ago.

“There are clear rules about not sacking workers taking part in a strike but this is not observed,” Marcus said.

Under the U.S. government review of workers’ rights, a public hearing would begin in Washington in August.

The government has been invited to take part. Labour Minister Gamini Lokuge told IPS that he has not received a copy of the AFL-CIO petition, but rejected claims of major violations of workers’ rights.

Ravi Peiris, secretary-general of the Employers’ Federation of Ceylon that represents the bulk of Sri Lankan business, agreed, saying the U.S. review was baseless and unnecessary.

“Most (local) trade unions were politically affiliated and some misuse their bargaining power for incorrect reasons,” Peiris told the ‘Daily Mirror’ newspaper. “Sri Lanka’s labour rights are the best protected in South Asia. I can say with certainty that our labour standards are the best in South Asia.”

U.S. statements have said that the government’s acceptance of the AFL-CIO petition is not a decision to revoke GSP.

“It is the beginning of a formal, collaborative process to work with the Sri Lankan government to address the concerns in the petition and work to improve support of and adherence to workers’ rights,” said Jeff Anderson, U.S. embassy spokesman in Colombo. “GSP privileges will continue throughout the process.”

U.S. officials took pains to say that the labour review was about workers’ rights and not about human rights linked to political issues, although it is clear that Sri Lanka’s overall rights record is under scrutiny. Washington has also raised human rights issues in the past.

“It’s an issue about workers’ rights and not human rights,” Anderson said.

For its part, the EU has made clear that it is tying trade privileges with measures that it believes Sri Lanka needs to put in place to improve its rights record since its military defeat of the Tamil Tigers in May 2009.

It has said that in return for a six-month extension of GSP concessions to the European market, it wants to see Colombo undertake steps such as the re-instatement of independent commissions, removal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the release of political prisoners.

The Rajapaksa government had rejected these earlier.

On Jul.1, the EU said it supported a new U.N. panel to review the human rights situation in the country.

The defeat of the Tigers ended a near 30-year campaign for an independent homeland for minority Tamils in this majority Sinhalese nation. Since then, Rajapaksa has come under intense international pressure over human rights violations, especially relating to the last stages of the war. He has repeatedly denied these accusations.

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