In the Colombo free trade zone

Issue 

By Michael Tardif and Sujatha Fernandes

COLOMBO — The Korea-Ceylon Footwear Manufacturing Company is a joint venture in the Colombo free trade zone. In the last four months the company has been the site of significant workers' struggles and is a test case for the new labour laws introduced under the People's Alliance government.

The company employs 2500 workers and is not unionised. Like many of the textile companies in the zone, it is subcontracted to produce shoes for brand names like Benetton, Esprit, Nike and Lumberjack.

In 1989 the first strike in the free trade zone broke out in the company and was followed by mass sackings. After a long campaign, a majority of the workers were reinstated, but the recognised leaders of the campaign were not among them. During the insurgency that broke out in the same year, two of the central leaders of this campaign were killed. The company is suspected of the killings, taking the opportunity to eliminate its enemies during a period of political instability.

Intimidated by the viciousness of the management and despite further attacks on their wages and conditions, the factory workers didn't resume their campaign. No further activity was experienced in the factory until 1992. In that year, without warning and without consulting the other sectors of the factory, one group of workers stopped work, demanding that the company reduce the production target for wage bonuses.

The management immediately dismissed the workers. This enraged the rest of the work force, who the next day all followed the example of their dismissed colleagues. As the campaign spread, the workers started to broaden their demands to include other issues. In addition to demanding that those dismissed be reinstated, they demanded the right to unionise in the free trade zone, and the increasing of the minimum wage to Rs3000 ($A50) per month.

The People's Alliance (PA) took up the demands of the strike, especially that of the increase to the minimum wage, during its election campaign. Despite the election of the PA in August, the workers are continuing with their campaign and to date have not received any benefit from the election promises of the PA. Fifty-seven workers remain out of a job.

Some of these workers, organised in the group Kelape Api (We in the Zone), described their struggle.

Indrani Jayavikrama: My husband was killed in a struggle, and my parents looked after my two children. They are very old but my father supported the children through some work. Last year my father died and there was no-one to support my mother and children, so I sent them Rs1000 per month from my wages. For two months when the strike was on I was unable to send my children any money because I had no income. I myself survived on the money raised from the strike fund, but I could not support my children. I recognise the injustice that exists and I want to fight it, but I can't because of my children.

W.N.M. Ariyadasa: I have been married for 1

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55D> years and now have twins who are four months old. My only income is the job in the factory. My wife was previously working in the factory but since she had twins she had to stop work, so now we have only one income. It is very difficult to get a job, and I feel I have nowhere to go.

Anoma Padmaperuma: I have 10 brothers and sisters. All of them are married and all are involved in farming. At the moment it is very difficult because they are not getting any rain. I have been providing support for my brothers and sisters and their families because they have not been able to provide for themselves due to the lack of rain. Last month my sister was married, so I pawned my house and land for Rs50,000 to support them. But I don't know what I will do now because since losing my job I have not been able to raise the money to get back my land and house.

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