COLOMBO -- In Sri Lanka's Batticaloa district, 303 km north-east of here, hundreds of garment export factory workers, mainly Tamil women, work long hours every day without break.
Some of the factories stipulate the number of visits that can be made to the toilet during working hours. In some, employees are even banned from drinking water during working hours.
One of the factories issued a warning letter to woman who filled a bottle with drinking water during working hours.
The factories are run by both local and foreign employers, producing for export. Rights groups accuse them routinely violating labour laws.
Instead of preventing this, rights activists allege that the government now wants to make it easier for these employers to push their workers even harder.
Rights activists are unhappy with the Labour Ministry's plan to amend labour laws to introduce 80 hours of overtime every month for factory workers, including those in export processing zones (EPZ).
Labour unions too have expressed concern that the new rules would make it easier for factory owners to make their employees work longer hours at low wages.
The employers are already accused of extracting more than 100 hours of overtime every two months, ignoring the 1942 Factory Ordinance, which permits a total of 100 hours of such work annually.
''If overtime is legalised, employers will have a better clout to repress workers and exploit them more,'' says Anton Marcus, General Secretary of the Free Trade Zones Workers' Union.
Marcus warns that these amendments will make it possible to cut the workforce by 33 percent. The Labour Department has dismissed Marcus' fears as unfounded.
Though overtime rules are often violated, at present, workers can challenge this in court.
However, unions fear that if overtime is legally increased, 80 hours per month will be the ''compulsory or forced overtime'' that will be extracted from them.
The change in the law was mooted in July 2000. Labour leaders say it was deferred in view of the subsequent national elections last year.
According to the government's Board of Investment, the change in law is necessary to make Sri Lankan exporters competitive.
The exporters supply to the big international brands who have to comply with codes of conduct requiring them to abide by labour laws in producing nations. A third of all garments produced for export are sent to the European Union and most of the rest go to the United States.
Marcus says that the government has agreed to legally increased overtime hours ''to circumvent European and U.S. customer demands to adhere to the labour laws in the manufacturing countries.''
Rights groups and labour leaders allege that the legalisation of longer hours of overtime, will lead to greater exploitation of workers.
The Labour Department, the Board of Investment and investors justify the long hours of overtime by saying that workers want to earn more.
However, rights groups and unions say the workers are forced to work longer because they are not paid a living wage.
The average monthly salary of a garment factory worker ranges between 25 and 35 U.S. dollars.
However, given the cost of living, a worker needs at least 80 dollars a month to meet basic needs. With overtime, workers earn at most 56 dollars per month.
A study of Sri Lanka's Export Processing Zones, which was published by the U.N.'s International Labour Organisation (ILO), agreed with the criticism.
''More that 80 percent of workers in the three EPZ's indicated that if it were possible, they would leave their jobs to become self employed or work in other occupations,'' it said.
''Their sentiments in that regard may be attributed to the difficulties in getting leave, the long hours of work, low wages and health problems,'' the study added.
The ILO stipulates tripartite resolution of labour disputes, involving employers, trade unions and the Labour Department.
However, workers and the Free Trade Zone Workers Union allege that the unions consulted at these discussions do not represent them.
The unions consulted are those affiliated to the ruling party and have no women representatives. Therefore, they allege, the three parties actually represent the same interest.
Appeals to permit the Free Trade Zone Workers Union to participate in these discussions have been refused.
Sri Lanka set up its first free trade zone in the year 1978. The entire country was declared a free trade zone in the year 1002. Investors were attracted with long-term tax holidays, duty free import of vehicles and interest free loans.
By the year 1998, the country had 280,000 workers employed in 890 export factories. Eighty percent of them are single women aged between 16 and 29 years.
Rights groups say that women workers are preferred because they are seen as a more flexible, easy to manipulate and less likely to demand their rights.
It is common for 10 to 12 women workers to live in a single, small room. About 30 women share one toilet. Water is scarce and transport at night is a problem. The women often complain of sexual harassment.
''In some factories, once a female worker gets married, she is deprived of promotions and subtly discouraged from continuing work,'' says Padmini Weerasuriya of the Women's Centre, a group working with free trade zone employees.
The right to organise and bargain is severely restricted even though this right is recognised in the Constitution.
Till last year, workers in the export zones were forbidden from forming unions. It was only last year that the Free Trade Zone Workers' Union was formed following an amendment to the Industrial Disputes Act.
Employers are also accused of using the country's emergency regulations to repress workers.
The Sri Lankan government declared a national emergency in May 2000 to fight the Tamil Tiger insurgency in the north. The export industry was declared an essential service under the emergency law.
This made it easier for Venture International -- a Canadian- Korean joint venture in the export zone -- to sack more than 400 workers who resorted to trade union action.
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