By Uditha Jayasinghe
Sri Lankan apparel unions have taken their campaign for higher wages to the buyers by joining an international initiative to establish a common salary scheme for Asian workers so that all basic wage structures in the region will be the same thereby reducing competition between countries.
Most Asian countries including Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nepal and heavyweights India and China are signatories as well. Under this campaign Sri Lanka is lobbying for a wage of Rs.20 000.
A number of Lankan apparel unions including All Ceylon United Workers Union, All Sri Lanka Janasetha Sahana Foundation, Sabindu Collective, Free Trade Zones and General Services Employees Union, Jathika Seva Sangamaya, Sri Lanka Nidahas Sevaka Sangamaya, United Federation of Labour, Right to Life and National Workers Congress have signed this pledge termed as a “Asian Floor Wage,” which was initiated by the Apparel-Industry Labour Rights Movement (ALaRM).
This movement is made up of local and foreign trade unions along with civic society groups that have launched a campaign aimed at getting a “living wage” for workers, explained Progress Union President Palitha Athukorala. The campaign known as the “Asia Floor Wage Campaign” targets manufacturers, suppliers, consumer-importers, garment workers and State officials on a global scale. The chief aim of the campaign is to seek an increase in the price of the garment products from the buyers and direct these funds to the workers in addition to the wages paid by the manufacturer.
“What we are trying to do is establish a fair wage in each country so that factories cannot shift from country to country,” he said pointing out that limiting these capital flows would not only level the playing field but also give the chance for buyers to pass on assistance to the workers thereby giving them a better standard of life.
Apparel unions have repeatedly agitated on the grounds that the basic wage of workers is inadequate. In Sri Lanka the basic wage is Rs.6900 with an Rs.1 000 cost of living allowance. This amount is increased to Rs. 8900 when the workers reach grade one but allocations beyond this have not been specified in the salary scale regularised by the Labour Commission according to Nidahas Sevaka Sangamaya Secretary Leon Joseph.
“Despite the high cost of living most workers make little more than Rs.10, 000,” he observed adding that the free trade zones give slightly better salaries than factories located outside. “Yet the Board of Investment (BOI) does not negotiate with the workers on salary increases, which have to be decided every January,” he charged. Joseph claimed that the BOI only talks to the employers and hands out an unfair deal to the workers.
The Asian Floor Wage Campaign works to minimise these disparities and has compiled a report titled “People’s Tribunal on Living Wage as a Fundamental Right of Sri Lankan garment workers,” following the People’s Tribunal held in Negombo. Joseph stated that a panel of judges from various organisations had listened to six women from the sector detail their experience before drawing up the report. “Insufficient wages, giving female workers more over time than they can cope with, forcing employees to work overtime as well as sexual harassment inside and outside the workplace were the key points that were highlighted in the report.” Apparel unions are planning to take this report to buyers and start discussions for a better salary scale.