Sri Lanka has been under curfew for over a fortnight. The near-total lockdown and the over 10,000 violators that police have arrested have ensured that almost everyone stays indoors.
Depending on the cash left in hand or their bank balance — in case of those making card payments — and social networks, some have been managing — either by buying from the trucks sporadically selling essentials in different neighbourhoods, or placing online orders, or tapping friends with curfew passes.
For many of them, especially families with children, older people and pets, the insecurity about diminishing supplies is real. As is their general anxiety about a once-distant virus now having become a threat right outside their doorsteps. The risk is here and now.
COVID-19 has hit everyone, but some have been hit more than others. Many of Sri Lanka’s working people — while tackling the everyday challenge of sourcing food in these difficult times — appear consumed by a greater fear. Will their jobs wait on the other side of this crisis? What might be the ‘normal’ they would return to?
Thangavel Malar, 30, has been employed in a garment factory at the Free Trade Zone (FTZ) in Katunayake, some 35 km north of Colombo, for the last five years. “The factory has been closed because of the virus. On March 21, my family somehow managed to return to our hometown with a colleague who was travelling back urgently to attend her father’s funeral,” she says from Batticaloa in the Eastern Province, 300 km away.
Ms. Malar hasn’t been able to check if her salary for March, of LKR 20,400 (roughly ₹8,165) has been credited to her account as her employers had assured. “We can’t go out now. We don’t know whether they will pay us anything for April, or take us back after this problem ends,” says the mother of two. But compared to hundreds of her colleagues stuck in the FTZs in Katunayake, neighbouring Biyagama and Koggala in the southern Galle district, Ms. Malar says she is better off. At least she got back home.
No cash, no food
Some thousand workers are still in their boarding houses near their factories, without cash, food supplies or information on when their employers might arrange transport for them to go to their hometowns, according to Padmini Weerasuriya, director of Women’s Centre, an organisation working with FTZ workers. The employers cannot simply “wash their hands off”, she says. “Open your eyes and see their plight. After all, these workers will rush back to your factories when you reopen. You cannot abandon them until then, you have a responsibility,” she tells the factory owners.
Sri Lanka’s first FTZ was set up in the late 1970s, when the economy was opened up. In the following decades, they have expanded to different parts of the country with the aim of increasing employment and boosting exports. According to Sri Lanka’s Board of Investment, the apparel sector, crucial to the economy, fetched a revenue of $5 billion in 2018 while employing 15% of the country’s workforce.
As exports plummet during the pandemic, workers are worried about their future. They know that if the factories, when they reopen, decide to cut costs, their salaries and jobs will likely be early targets. At one level, the coronavirus outbreak has amplified their existing poverty — many are heavily indebted trying to make ends meet — but at another, it has made their jobs and lives even more precarious.
Workers employed in Sri Lanka’s tea estates are desperately asking the companies to give them work for 25 days. Twenty-five days of work and their productivity alone — 18 kg a day — could bring some incentives over their basic wage of LKR 700 (roughly ₹275). However, in the current climate of stalled exports — tea fetched $1.4 billion in 2018 — and an economy reeling in shock, employers are reluctant to engage them for as many days. Their three year-long, consistent demand for a basic wage of LKR 1,000, that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said would be given from March 1, is now a failed promise.
“There are trucks going around with some supplies, but most estate labourer families don’t have cash to buy essentials. Some say give us rice, we can at least make a kanji (porridge) and drink it,” says Menaha Kandasamy, adviser to the Red Flag plantation union. “Those working in our tea and rubber estates were already so badly exploited. This pandemic is going to be another good excuse for the employers to exploit them even more in future.”