Over 1,000 garment workers in Sri Lanka positive for coronavirus


More than 1,000 Sri Lankan workers employed by Brandix, garment factory that makes clothes for big brands including Gap and Marks & Spencer, were tested positive for COVID-19.

The district of Gampaha, where the factory is located, is at the centre of Sri Lanka’s biggest coronavirus outbreak, with more than 7,000 cases – over half the national total.

Out of its 1,400 workers, more than 1,000 have been tested positive for COVID-19, putting Brandix – one of Sri Lanka’s largest apparel companies – in the spotlight.

Sri Lanka’s attorney general has ordered an investigation into whether the apparent spread of the disease from the factory could have been prevented, saying it “endangered human life”.

A progress report is expected by Nov. 13 on whether there was “negligence on the part of Brandix resulting in the spread of the virus”, said Nishara Jayaratne, the co-ordinating officer to the attorney general.

Brandix, which employs about 35,000 workers at plants across the country and is owned by the private Sri Lankan company Phoenix Ventures Ltd., has launched its own investigation.

Finance chief Hasitha Premaratnhe said its initial findings were that staff with a fever were sent home or taken to hospital, and it would take “appropriate action” if this was found to be wrong.

But workers and trade union officials who spoke to the Thomson Reuters Foundation said some of those who fell sick were asked to carry on working and others said they were given proper protective health (PPE) equipment.

“Some even fainted, but the company doctor gave basic medicines. All these sick women worked again, though they had some difficulties,” said one worker who asked not to be named, fearing repercussions for speaking out.

“We never suspected it was corona because everybody was complacent and employees shared their meals and did not wear masks inside the plant.”

Ashila Dandeniya, who heads the local trade union group Standup Movement, said Brandix workers reported temperature checks were not carried out consistently and said the company did not take their health condition seriously.

Brandix said it had health and safety measures in place including screening of staff, social distancing, mask wearing and temperature checks.

It reopened its factories in April when Sri Lanka’s government eased restrictions.

“We have appointed a high-level three-member independent committee to investigate into allegations levelled in the media,” said Premaratnhe, referring to reports of safety failings at the plant.

The island nation of 21 million people had managed to contain the coronavirus, imposing a strict lockdown from March to May and closing its borders to foreigners.

The garment industry – Sri Lanka’s biggest exporter, accounting for about 7% of the US$84 billion economy – was allowed to restart operations in April.

Trade union officials said there were about 50,000 people working in the export processing zone near the Brandix factory, including cleaning and security staff employed by local agencies.

The area has now been placed under quarantine to prevent the outbreak from spreading and garment workers say they have been made scapegoats, seeing the measure as a form of punishment. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)