New union-employer agreement in Sri Lanka addresses key worker rights

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    New union-employer agreement in Sri Lanka addresses key worker rights

    In a historic victory for the workers and their unions, the MoU establishes a bipartite dispute resolution mechanism by the unions and the forum of apparel manufacturers. An additional agreement also covers workers entitlements in case they are affected by COVID-19.

    Sri Lanka’s apparel sector and key industry trade unions have signed a historic agreement to ensure that business owners and employees work together to maintain continued vigilance on pandemic prevention, discuss issues of mutual interest and stay open to participation in addressing grievances.

    Besides providing safeguard to employees during the COVID-19 pandemic, the memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed between the Joint Apparel Association Forum Sri Lanka (JAAF) and the Union Collective will help the apparel industry to elevate its human resource practices.

    JAAF is the apex body of Sri Lanka’s apparel industry. The Union Collective, on the other hand, comprises of three of the prominent trade unions of the apparel sector in the country – the Free Trade Zones and General Services Employees Union, Sri Lanka Nidahas Sewaka Sangamaya and the National Union of Seafarers.

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    A joint statement of the unions said: “This is the first time an industrial sector is represented in a bi-partite agreement with worker representatives (in Sri Lanka). This is also the first time both employer and employee representatives have agreed on workplace health management through bi-partite health committees.”

    Bipartite mechanisms

    According to the MoU, trade unions will be represented in the bipartite health committees established in each apparel factory. These committees ensure that guidelines issued by Sri Lanka’s ministry of health are strictly adhered to at each production plant.

    In addition, the Mou assures that JAAF and the unions will establish a bipartite dispute resolution mechanism to collaboratively address worker grievances in a transparent manner. Any grievance raised by the unions will be forwarded to the executive committee of JAAF and the trade union collective for review. JAAF and the respective union will discuss every valid complaint and resolve the issue in a period of one month, unless it is mutually agreed to extend that timeline.

    Importantly, the MoU also recognises employees’ freedom of association and their rights to collective bargaining.

    Beyond being an important development for the apparel unions, this agreement has the potential to provide a fresh lease of life to the apparel industry in the island nation as it can lend a credible label of worker participation to global brands.

    Ineke Zeldenrust, International Coordinator at Clean Clothes Campaign, said: “This agreement goes some way towards redressing the power imbalance between workers and employers. It gives joint support for the bipartite health committees, and a bipartite dispute resolution mechanism, all of which have been key asks of the Sri Lankan trade unions to factory owners during the pandemic.”

    Agreement on managing impact of COVID-19 pandemic

    In another landmark move, JAAF and the Union Collective signed a second agreement, which lays out how employers and the unions will collaborate to assess and coordinate their efforts to manage the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on all stakeholders, co-operating as partners to address identified issues and challenges the pandemic may create.

    “Collaborations between the employers and trade unions have been critical in elevating Sri Lanka’s human resource practices above many of its peers in the sector and in ensuring business continuity following the pandemic,” JAAF Secretary General Tuli Cooray said.

    The partnership compliments the ‘better work’ programme of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the International Finance Corporation (IFC). Through this partnership, the two entities representing employers and the trade unions contribute to addressing issues related to the improvement of economic performance and competitiveness of enterprises.

    “The protection of employees and their wellbeing is a foremost priority of both the industry and the trade unions. Our interests are strongly aligned,” Cooray said. “These agreements will formalise our cooperation and lay the foundation for further collaboration to the benefit of our employees.”

    The unions and JAAF have signed a second agreement ensuring that workers will receive 50 per cent of their monthly wage or Sri Lankan Rs. 14,500 (US$71), whichever is higher, if having to take time off for Covid-19.

    “The organisations which form the Union Collective have demonstrated their strong and enduring commitment to health, wellbeing and upholding the rights of apparel sector employees,” said General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Nidahas Sewaka Sangamaya Leslie Devendra.

    The MoU also covers gender dynamics, workplace cooperation with a lens on occupational safety and health and advances common interests, especially the emerging challenges stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

    As Devendra said, “We welcome this agreement, which paves the way for employees to be represented in the decision-making process in matters of vital importance to them and increases transparency in the handling of grievances.”


    Image: IndusriAll Global Union

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