In a recent press interview in Colombo Mr. Neil Kearney, General Secretary of the International Textiles, Garments and Leather Workers’ Federation (ITG & LWF) and his local counterpart – Mr. Anton Marcus has cast doubt on the credibility of the “Garments without Guilt” campaign by saying that workers in the garment industry in Sri Lanka do not enjoy adequate social protection.



In particular, Mr. Kearny has alleged that the campaign has two problems, namely-


i) Employees’ Councils operating in garment factories are controlled by the management and do not conform to the “rules of Freedom of Association” and “do not meet the Labour Standards” of buyers.

ii)The campaign code as regards payment of wages needs to be revised as the current wages fall short of “living wage” to meet the basic needs of workers as required by the buyers and the ILO.


The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), affiliated to the ITG & LWF, has also claimed in a letter addressed to the EU that findings of several ILO supervisory bodies over recent years indicated several lapses and violations of ILO conventions, and ironically all these ILO CFA cases refer to the apparel sector.


ETUC has further claimed that government of Sri Lanka has “failed to address adequately the recommendations of the ILO committee of Freedom of Association”.


The International Confederation of Trade Unions (ICTU) to which ETUC is affiliated is also reported to have highlighted a number of violations of Core Labour Standards in Sri Lanka, in a letter addressed to HE the President.


Further, Mr. Kearney has emphasized that Freedom of Association is necessary to enable workers to participate in the decision making process, particularly at the present time when apparel industry is trying hard to survive for the benefit of all stakeholders.


All these various misleading reports, allegations and complaints are bound to have serious repercussions and impact on the image of the apparel industry of Sri Lanka and compliance of Core Labour Standards viz-a-viz, EU’s, GSP + concessions, if they are left unchecked and not countered with factual information and proper clarification.


The JAAF is deeply concerned over the misleading and baseless allegations made by the International Trade Unions, namely, the ITUC, ETUC and ITU & LWF to unduly influence the buyers and the European community at a crucial time when the granting of extension of GSP + concession to Sri Lanka is to be considered by the EC in a month’s time.


While rejecting the various allegations and complaints made by the ITUC, ETUC, and ITG & LWF as untrue and ill-founded, the JAAF wish to counter them in the correct perspective.


It has been made out that Freedom of Association and unionisation of the workforce are vital for effective workplace relations, particularly for consultation and bargaining, between workers and management and that unionisation in the apparel sector in Sri Lanka is less than 10 percent. For this reason, it has been argued that over 90 percent of the workforce in the apparel sector have no channel of communication and consultation with the management.


On the question of unionisation, two matters come to the fore. Firstly, Freedom of Association does not imply compulsory unionism. Freedom of Association means not only the right to form or join a union but also the right not to form or join a union. The ILO supervisory bodies also accept this rule and work on this basis. This explains why the unionisation rate world over is very low with the exception of a few countries.


As compared to other Asian countries, the unionisation rate in Sri Lanka is high as 20 percent or more for all sectors and over 10 percent in EPZ Enterprises. In the case of EPZ Enterprises in Sri Lanka the workers have two options to exercise the right of Freedom of Association and collective bargaining. Firstly, they have the right to form new unions or join existing ones. Over 10 percent of the workforce in EPZs have chosen this option.


The second option, which is available to EPZ (and BOI approved) enterprises, is to form “employees’ councils” comprising “elected representatives” of the workforce. Employees’ councils are primarily meant to provide a forum for joint consultation / social dialogue. But, being a body consisting of “elected representatives” of the workforce, ILO Convention No.154 (of 1981) concerning promotion on Collective Bargaining and ILO Convention No. 135 (of 1971) concerning Workers’ Representatives in Undertaking confer the right to “collective bargaining” on employees’ councils.


It is relevant to recall here that the right of employees’ councils to engage in collective bargaining was canvassed before the ILO Freedom of Association Committee (in case No.2255) by the ITG & LWF in 2003 on behalf of the Ceylon Mercantile, Industrial and General Workers’ Union (the CMU) as an infringement of the right of trade unions to bargain collectively under ILO Convention No.98. In December 2003, the Freedom of Association Committee of the ILO ruled that employees’ councils, composed of elected representatives of the workforce are entitled to engage in collective bargaining, subject to certain procedural changes for the election of the councils recommended by the Committee being given effect to by the government.


The recommended changes were duly effected in the relevant BOI Guidelines and since then employees’ councils are recognised by the ILO as duly elected bodies of workers’ representatives for purposes of ILO Convention No. 134 & Convention No. 154. They now operate as validly constituted independent councils devoid of any control or manipulation by the management as made out by the ITG & LWF and the ITUC.


In the context of EPZs in Sri Lanka, therefore, it is not only the number of trade unions but also the number of employees’ councils that matter in considering the process of consultation, communication, and negotiation and for the purposes of social dialogue and Collective Bargaining. This is the fact and the law as endorsed by the Governing Body of the ILO.


In the above light, it is useful to look at the number of trade unions and the number of employees’ councils operating in EPZ Enterprises. As of September 2007, the position is as follows: -

Total no. EPZ Enterprises - 264

No. of Enterprises in which Trade Union were functioning - 33 (12.5%)

No. of Enterprises negotiating with Trade Unions - 24 (10%)

No. of Enterprises granting Union “check off” - 11

No. of employees’ councils operating in EPZs - 110 (41.7%)

The Garments with out Guilt initiative has had worldwide acclaim and the ethical manufacturing of clothing is being upheld as an example to all the countries in the region.