Employers fail to control COVID, but Sri Lankan army rounds up workers instead
Sri Lankan army soldiers at a check point during a curfew imposed to stop the spread of the coronavirus in Colombo, Sri Lanka, May 1, 2020. In a town near the capital, soldiers from the army raided garment workers' dorms in the middle of the night and forced them into quarantine centers after their employer failed to control a COVID outbreak. | Eranga Jayawardena / AP

Garment workers in Sri Lanka were herded off into quarantine by the army in the middle of the night following a rapid increase of infections at their factory. Unions say that this could have been avoided by forming the recommended health committees.

According to reports, on Oct. 19, the total number of COVID-19 cases in the town of Minuwangoda increased to 2,122, including more than a thousand workers at Brandix Apparel Ltd., their close contacts, and family members.

This cluster accounts for nearly half the total number of COVID-19 cases in Sri Lanka and has received national attention.

Unions say that the army, which handles COVID quarantine centers, entered garment workers’ boarding rooms at night without prior notice, forcing them to immediately move to quarantine centers.

Anton Marcus, of the Free Trade Zone and General Services Employees Union, says:

“Had the factories formed health committees as decided by the tripartite [workers, employers, government] taskforce, the health problems would have been identified earlier and this crisis could have been avoided. It is imperative that health committees are immediately formed in every garment factory.

Garment workers line up for COVID screening recently in the town of Minuwangoda, Sri Lanka. | CC

“The forceful quarantine measures must stop and workers need to be treated with dignity. We appeal to the government to provide job security for the workers, income assurance, as well as health and safety while ensuring that the crisis does not damage the industry as well.”

Workers were given no time to prepare or to gather their belongings. They were taken together, without following any safety processes like social distancing, to distant quarantine centers. They were given no opportunity to let family members of anyone else know what was happening.

The fact that the quarantine center lacked safety measures, basic sanitary facilities, health staff, and access to good food meant an increased possibility of infection among the quarantined workers. Family members of the quarantined workers did not get any information; not even local government officials offered any details.

Apoorva Kaiwar, IndustriALL regional secretary, said:

“We are deeply concerned about the harsh quarantine measures and their impact on workers and their families. The government of Sri Lanka should follow established international norms to control the pandemic while respecting patients’ rights. The government and employer should note that most of the patients of the Minuwangoda Brandix cluster are women workers and ensure appropriate health safety measures are provided to them.”

Various reports suggest that company officials insisted on maintaining production to achieve set targets and failed to stop the developing health crisis among the workers.




IndustriALL Global Union represents 50 million workers in 140 countries in the mining, energy, and manufacturing sectors and is a new force in global solidarity taking up the fight for better working conditions and trade union rights around the world. IndustriALL Global Union representa a 50 millones de trabajadores en 140 países en los sectores de la minería, la energía y la manufactura y es una nueva fuerza de solidaridad mundial que lucha por mejores condiciones laborales y derechos sindicales en todo el mundo.