Statement on the crisis faced by garment workers in Sri Lanka

Statement on the crisis faced by garment workers in Sri Lanka

Labour Behind the Label stands in solidarity with workers in Sri Lanka against the government’s reckless plans to drastically reduce labour law protections. Read our statement below.

Sri Lanka’s garment workers have been bearing the brunt of the financial and political crisis that has haunted the country for over 1.5 years, with high inflation and currency devaluation pushing workers into poverty while the government and employers repress their right to organise. With the government now rushing through procedurally unsound changes to labour laws, and domestic debt restructuring measures targeting workers’ social security funds, garment workers in Sri Lanka will be deprived of even more basic rights and protections against precarity. National and international labour rights organisations appeal to the government of Sri Lanka to respect tripartite processes and refrain from targeting workers’ social security funds as part of debt restructuring measures.

Labour law

The government’s attempt to overhaul existing labour laws into a unified labour code has from the outset ignored established tripartite consultation mechanisms and bypassed other existing democratic processes. Draft legislation, for example, has not been made available in all the country’s official languages. Beyond the problematic process, which disregards the rights of trade unions as well as minorities, we are concerned that the proposed unified labour law seeks to eliminate the rights and protection of workers in the interests of creating a more exploitable labour force. By removing international minimum standards such as the eight hour working day, paid overtime entitlements and protections against arbitrary dismissal, allowing employers to force employees to work for four weeks straight without days off, reducing annual leave entitlements, and weakening freedom of association and collective bargaining rights, this legislation will increasingly leave workers at the mercy of their employers, without any recourse.

We believe that any revision of Sri Lanka’s labour laws requires a thorough consultative process, in which the voices of workers and their elected trade union representatives are heard. This could be realised by the government appointing a credible independent commission with the participation of experts such as the International Labour Organisation. Any consultation process must include the four trade unions which were unlawfully removed from the National Labour Advisory Council in June 2023.

Anton Marcus, joint secretary of the Free Trade Zones & General Service Employees Union in Sri Lanka says:

The government’s proposals and process for the overhaul of the labour law violate international norms for decent work and threaten to unleash a race to the bottom on labour rights. Only an inclusive, transparent, and democratic process of engagement with the participation of all relevant tripartite stakeholders can lead to results that are acceptable to workers and meet international norms. 

Social security

Workers are additionally concerned about their rights and livelihoods now that the government, in response to the ongoing international debt crisis, has announced a restructuring of domestic debt. The restructuring targets superannuation or pension funds, with the largest among them, the Employees Provident Fund (EPF), representing 2.5 million workers. Workers pay into this fund through deductions from already meagre wages throughout their working lives. Their laboriously built-up retirement funds are now being targeted without any consultation. Moreover, such restructuring does not apply to other treasury bond holders. If workers’ social security funds are not included, the government has threatened to ensure these funds pay the price through other means, such as a tax increase from 14 to 30%.

Singling out superannuation funds, and thereby forcing Sri Lankan workers to foot the bill for a debt crisis for which they are not responsible, is arbitrary and unfair. We support the position of the major trade unions who have requested the Governor of the Central Bank to halt all decision-making and call for a trade union forum to discuss this matter. 

The Clean Clothes Campaign, the Free Trade Zone & General Services Employees Union, the International Union Educational League, Labour behind the Label, Maquila Solidarity Network, and War on Want stand in solidarity with the garment workers of Sri Lanka, a majority of whom are women and migrant workers. Workers took to the streets in protest on 19, 20 and 25 July and we stand with them as they continue to protest and resist the government’s attacks on their basic labour rights and hard-earned social security funds. We urge the government of Sri Lanka and all stakeholders involved, such as employers associations, the IMF and the Central Bank, to ensure workers are not forced to pay the price for the country’s ongoing crisis by

  • Immediately halting the existing labour reform process; 
  • Devising specific, transparent, and consensus-based “terms of reference” for the process of reforms with the participation of all relevant tripartite stakeholders of the world of work such as International Labour Organisation, to come to a reform process that ensures local Labour laws are made consistent with norms of International Labour Standards and Decent Work;
  • Ensuring that international standards are not violated and that such a reform process is carried by a tripartite and democratic process with participation from trade unions, the National Labour Advisory Council (NLAC) and other key stakeholders. 
  • Reinstating the four trade unions which were unlawfully removed from the National Labour Advisory Council in June 2023; 
  • Halting the targeting of EPF/ETF (pension funds) for debt restructuring without adequate engagement with the workers and their representatives. 
  • Ensuring that workers do not have to bear a ‘disproportionate’ burden of the economic crisis and that their rights are respected.

No Pride in Forced Labour

No Pride in Forced Labour

Last month we launched our public campaign targeting Tesco and Intertek to settle the lawsuit that over 130 migrant garment workers in Thailand have initiated against the brand and its social auditor. Here is a little update.

Why are workers in Thailand suing Tesco and Intertek?

At the end of 2022 the Guardian ran a series of stories on the VK Garment factory and the abuse workers there endured over several years. The pieces are not an easy read.

Between 2017 and 2020 hundreds of migrant garment workers in Thailand were making jeans for Tesco’s F&F brand under horrific conditions. They worked excessively long hours for illegally low pay. Their documents were confiscated, their rights were trampled, they suffered various abuses.

But the VK Garment workers story is a story of organised resistance and workers fighting back. 

When they asked for higher wages and more protections at work, the people whose labour creates Tesco’s profits were summarily dismissed. Yet instead of accepting this injustice, the VK Garment workers called on the support of their union, and together with allies here in the UK they are actually suing both Tesco, and Intertek – the social auditors who helped them avoid responsibility. This is a huge step for these workers, and the potential for the garment industry and workers everywhere should not be underestimated.

Yet we know that the legal system is slow, and workers can’t always expect that they will get justice through the courts. That is why at Labour Behind the Label we’ve been busy putting pressure on ‘Britain’s favourite forced labour supermarket’ Tesco and Intertek to settle this case and pay their workers.

How have we been supporting the VK Garment workers?

As an organisation, we exist to support workers’ struggles everywhere and to enable individuals to demand change in our capacity as people, as members of communities and workplaces, not just as consumers. We know public pressure on brands works and in this case we wanted to remind Tesco that we’re here, that we see and hear the VK Garment workers and we will do all we can to amplify their demands and help them win their fight.

Last month, we challenged Tesco CEO Ken Murphy on his company’s continued reliance on the discredited practice of social auditing that fails to protect workers time and time again. In response, we got platitudes about their complex supply chain system and their commitment to human rights. But VK Garment workers’ human rights were violated continuously in the name of Tesco’s profit margins. The role of social auditing in the garment industry is complex, and often deeply damaging. Instead of more accountability, it offers less by allowing brands to outsource control and ultimately further delay responsibility for taking action. So we won’t accept this meagre concession from Tesco and will continue working to expose Intertek’s role in this case. 

We also couldn’t stand idly by and watch Tesco promote itself as a champion of LGBTQI+ rights while continuing to undermine workers rights and protections. It seems the retailer values human rights so much, they are one of the major sponsors of London Pride.

But what about the rights of those who were putting in 90-hour weeks to finish orders? What about the LGBTQI+ garment workers suffering abuse and poverty wages in their supplier factories? There’s no parade, no floats, no grand commitments for them. 

Pride is a protest. It’s a call to action to actively defend and fight for the rights won – and the rights yet to be won, by marginalised and exploited communities. Pride is a celebration of shared struggles. And Pride ought to be a threat to corporate interests. So, with the help of our trade union friends we took our campaign to the streets of London to remind Tesco that there is No Pride in Forced Labour. You can’t care for the rights of some of your workers while exploiting others. 

We got a very warm reception not just on the trade union bloc – thank you, Unison, ASLEF, GMB and all others, but also from those who have come out to celebrate Pride and watch the parade. It reminded us how important it is to bring demands to the corporations who seek the spotlight to promote their brand through pink-washing. London Pride has a long history of engaging with labour struggles, and it’s a legacy we vow to continue, no matter how many fossil polluters, debt financiers and forced labour producers try and take advantage of it.


What can you do?

So, what’s next? We’ve been told that the legal case proper will get going from October onwards. This means we’ve got the summer left to really pressure Tesco and Intertek into settling. The corporate calendar may have slowed down for the holiday season but remain active on social media in calling the companies out. We will also use this vital campaign to raise more awareness around social auditing as a method of avoiding responsibility.

If you haven’t already, make sure to sign our one-click tool to send a letter to Tesco CEO and Intertek CEO and demand that they settle this case. If you have – why not forward to a friend? Sharing our social media posts, spreading the message and signing up to hear more from Labour Behind the Label is a big boost to the workers – more visibility for them means a higher chance the companies will feel the threat and settle. 


Action Update: Volume 31

Action Update: Volume 31

Find out what Labour Behind the Label have been up to in our bi-annual Action Update.

This year has been a hard year for many, not least for garment workers who have been bearing the brunt of the economic impact of the Covid-19 crisis. In this issue we will be sharing what we have been doing in the past six months and how our work is supporting workers to claim their rights. This includes our work calling out boohoo and their poor practices in Leicester and the #PayYourWorkers campaign where we are asking Primark to tell us if they have paid their workers. We will also share our Black Friday action, news related to our current urgent appeals and our upcoming matched giving campaign where each donation up to £4k will be matched!

Read it here: Action Update: Volume 31

Boohoo: Pay back your workers and go transparent

Boohoo: Pay back your workers and go transparent

This campaign is now closed. We launched the campaign on Black Friday 2020-  a national day of shopping frenzy when cheap mark ups see hundreds of thousands of shoppers drawn to buy. Over 1400 of you signed a petition, calling on Boohoo to pay their workers back for their unpaid wages, and get them to publish where their factories are.

Boohoo have published a list of their UK suppliers, but not yet signed up to the Transparency Pledge. They have promised full list in September so we will let you know if this happens, and if the list meets transparency requirements. We are continuing to lobby them behind the scenes to sign the Pledge.

You can still read more about the campaign, and our demands for Boohoo below.

Boohoo’s £3.50/hr workers are owed millions in back pay

Boohoo workers are having their wages stolen from them. Workers in Leicester are owed million of pounds in back pay after years of £3.50/hr work, which has established itself as a norm in the Leicester industry. This illegal exploitation has led to mass profits for Boohoo who have used the cheap manufacturing to build their business into a multi-million-pound profit engine.

Boohoo’s profits have soared in the pandemic, despite media exposes on poor factory conditions. Profits in the first half of 2020 rose by 51%, as Boohoo made £68.1m in profits in the six months to 31 August. Meanwhile, many other high street brands saw huge losses. The question we are made to ask when faced with these figures is was this margin made on the back of illegal work and who is being made to pay? 

Boohoo must #GoTransparent

For years Boohoo have refused to say where their clothes are made yet anecdotally, we know that Boohoo source upwards of 70% of the product coming out of Leicester factories. Repeated studies have shown that clothes made in Leicester are made by workers on illegally low wages, working hugely long hours, paid through false pay slips and double records. During the pandemic, undercover investigations found furlough fraud, workers forced to come into factories even when ill, cramped and unsafe conditions, as well as £3.50/hr pay. All the while, Boohoo’s one inhouse auditor responsible for checking factory conditions was put on furlough… Boohoo must be honest about where its clothes are made and publish a supplier list without delay. This is the first step to change.

What do we want Boohoo to do?

If Boohoo is actually committed to addressing issues in its supply chain as they say, it needs to make sure that it is honest about the impact it has had on workers who have been making its clothes. Workers must be paid back in full for the wage gap between what they have been paid and the minimum wage, and boohoo must immediately publish a list of its factories to put on record the places where its clothes have been made and are being made now. 

We are calling on Boohoo to Boohoo to:
1. Commit to ensure workers who have made their clothes receive at least the minimum wage for the work they have done.
2. Halt any practices of cutting and running from suppliers unless all worker concerns and backpay issues have been first remediated
3. Give union access at all their suppliers going forwards to improve worker representation and monitoring of conditions
4. Publish their supplier list and sign the transparency pledge now, without delay.
5. Sign the wage assurance statement to show a commitment to paying your workers and improving social security going forward.


Further reading

Action Update: Volume 29

Action Update: Volume 29

Find our what Labour Behind the Label have been up to in our bi-annual Action Update.

This issue gives you an overview of our latest campaigns to hold the garment industry to account. There is information on our sweatshop-free school uniforms campaign, calling on Trutex to operate with more transparency, a look at fast fashion giant Boohoo and poverty pay, and an update on the situation in Bangladesh and the violent repression of garment workers who protested peacefully for higher wages. There is also an update on some of our urgent appeals work, including campaigning for workers who produced for Burberry and Uniqlo to be paid the wages they are owed. 

Read it here: Action Update: Volume 29