COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Near the end of September, workers at a factory owned by Brandix, an apparel manufacturer in Sri Lanka, began showing signs of fever, and developing persistent coughs. Some even fainted. They went to the factory’s sick room, where they were given over-the-counter painkillers, and told to go back to work.
Eventually, as people’s symptoms worsened, a 39-year-old supervisor at the factory, P Ratnayake, requested hospital care. In the evening of October 3, she tested positive for COVID-19, the first instance of community infection in Sri Lanka in 60 days. Within two days 831 others had tested positive for the coronavirus, and now, more than 10,000 cases have been linked to the cluster at the factory – half the national total. Since the cluster was first reported, 56 people have died from COVID in Sri Lanka. “I was treated as if I had a social disease. I felt like I had tested positive for HIV/AIDs and not COVID-19," Ratnayake told VICE World News.
Investigations are still ongoing into how the cluster at the Brandix factory in Minuwangoda, 27 miles from the capital Colombo, came about.
“We rally together to care for the affected employees and their families, whilst endeavouring to minimise the impact on our communities and our nation in a collective effort to emerge from this crisis,” Brandix said in a statement after the initial outbreak.
The essential product that these employees were making? Clothes, for major high street brands in the West. While Brandix would not confirm which brands the factory where the outbreak took place supplies, their European customers generally include, among others, Marks & Spencer, Victoria’s Secret, GAP and Calvin Klein.
“Just because you’re stuck at home, doesn’t mean you can’t make Friday feel a bit special,” said a caption on an M&S Instagram post during the COVID-19 lockdown in the UK earlier this year.
Not everyone is stuck at home of course. People making the duvet coats, pink sweaters and printed midi dresses thousands of miles away don’t have special Fridays. Instead they work in overcrowded rooms with poor ventilation, on tightly packed production lines where social distancing is next-to impossible, often without protective gear, for a monthly base salary of roughly £83.
“No one is even willing to start this conversation. Our last resort is to write to the brands.”
The relentlessly increasing demand for affordable fashionable clothes under lockdown in the West is putting supply chain workers at factories like those operated by Brandix at risk of contracting the coronavirus, and as was witnessed in Sri Lanka, exposing whole countries to potential new outbreaks.
Ayesha Barenblat, the founder of the sustainable fashion movement Remake said that workers in the global fashion industry suffer because of deregulation, leading to low wages, long working hours and sometimes unsafe conditions.
“But It does not have to be this way,” said Barenblat, who helped launch #PayUp, a viral media campaign born after brands refused to pay their supply chain workers in the pandemic. The major brands, she said, “can pay living wages. They have the leverage to support collective bargaining, enforceable contracts with built in worker protections and regulations. Only then will workers no longer remain trapped in a cycle of poverty.”
Brandix Apparel Limited is one of the largest clothing manufacturers in South Asia. Its factories in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka employ over 55,000 people.
In March, when a nationwide curfew was imposed in Sri Lanka, Brandix closed its factories. Darsha and Priyangika work as sewing machine operators at Brandix, and live a couple of blocks apart from each other in the trade zone in Katunayake, an industrial centre that’s close to the Brandix factory where the outbreak started.
They said that they both received their basic salary while the factories were closed, and were called to work in April, as lockdown restrictions in Sri Lanka eased. By May, Brandix had exported 200 millions face masks to the US.
When the second outbreak began in October, some Brandix employees like Darsha were quarantined in three-star hotels. But others like Priyangika were quarantined at their congested boarding rooms. “They sent me five kilos of rice and two kilos of lentils on October 7,” Priyangika said. Both women spoke on the condition that their full names not be used, for fear of reprisals.
Priyangika’s experience is very much the norm in free trade zones in Sri Lanka, where most workers are women from rural areas. A study by the female rights group Women’s Center revealed that the main reasons for diseases in trade zones are malnutrition and unsafe working conditions. With a lack of factory-offered housing, employees spend nearly a quarter of their basic salary for private boarding houses, exposing them to unsafe environments where they are often also sexually harassed.
Ashila Dandeniya, founder of the Stand Up Movement, a workers’ rights nonprofit in Sri Lanka, told VICE World News that Brandix could have controlled the spread had it acted faster. “I guess we will never find out about how it began. Brandix neglected it when their workers started showing symptoms. No one is even willing to start this conversation. Our last resort is to write to the brands,” she said.
In a statement to VICE World News, Brandix said that “in keeping with general Brandix Group policy, the Minuwangoda factory operated a Medical Centre, outsourced to a reputed private medical company. Its purpose is to provide first level care to sick employees. The nurse or doctor in charge at the center makes the decision after a preliminary assessment on whether an employee is fit enough to return to work or whether they should be sent home or referred to a hospital for further assessment/treatment.
“As per the Medical Centre records made available, all employees who had fever or fainted during September had been sent home/to a hospital in accordance with the protocols."
“I’m happy that I’m no longer a garment worker.”
Brandix said it had “strict health and safety protocols” in place to prevent and control COVID outbreaks across its 27 facilities in Sri Lanka, and was continuing to test employees.
“Our factory employees are the life blood of our organisation and we will do everything in our power to keep them safe while we navigate the reality of the ‘new normal,’” Brandix said.
Victoria’s Secret said in an emailed statement: “We can assure you that our company and Brandix take this unfortunate outbreak of COVID-19 very seriously and are focused on the well-being of those impacted. We are confident in Brandix, our partner for more than 25 years, and their commitment to their employees.”
“The health and safety of the workers in our supply chain is our top concern and we are monitoring the situation very closely. From the start of this pandemic, we have worked closely with our vendors and suppliers and have provided detailed guidance on COVID-19 preparedness and mitigation,” GAP said in a statement.
PVH, the parent company of brands like Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger said: “The health and safety of all partners and their workers in our overall supply chain is a top priority for PVH. We require all suppliers to adhere to local health guidelines and government regulations, and have issued workplace guidelines to suppliers based on recommendations from the World Health Organization (WHO).”
Marks & Spencer said it was currently receiving its final orders from Brandix. “We’re supporting all of our suppliers during this challenging time. As garment production recommenced, we took steps to ensure suppliers were implementing safeguarding measures to protect workers,” a spokesperson said. “This includes social distancing, sanitising practices, providing adequate protective equipment and additional awareness training about the virus.”
Danu isn’t a garment worker anymore, and has never worked for Brandix. But one early morning at the start of October, she was among hundreds of people loaded onto a bus by public health officials who told them they were being taken to institutionalised quarantine. There weren’t enough seats on the buses, so most people stood for the four-hour journey. Upon arrival, people were given their first food of the day: biscuits and a packet of milk.
Danu, 31, had been taken to a nondescript teacher training college, 100km away from her home in Katunayake. She spent the next two weeks at the requisitioned army-managed quarantine centre, without proper food or the medication she takes for chronic arthritis.
“Are we cattle or are we human? I asked the officials,” Danu said over the phone, two days after returning to her boarding room in Katunayake.
It was only when Danu returned home from the quarantine centre she learned the COVID cluster at the Brandix factory had turned into a large outbreak.
Danu spent around a year working at a non-Brandix garment factory in Katunayake before quitting at the start of 2020. People currently working at garment factories in Sri Lanka are extremely reluctant to speak about their experiences for fear of reprisals. Even though Danu has worked in a restaurant kitchen for the most of this year, she still only agreed to speak only on the condition that her full name not be used. “I earn the same, but at least I feel alive now.”
“They sent fabric, and I cut it,” she said of her experiences at the garment factory. “I cut more. I cut more and more and more.” She worked the night shift from 7pm to 5am, always standing. The only time she sat was for a 30-minute dinner break, the only other respite was a cup of tea that arrived at midnight. When she finished one batch of fabric, the next batch came. There was no end.
“When the orders weren’t over, I stayed an hour or two more to finish it. I cut wool fabric for jerseys. There was so much fabric dust,” she said, her voice heavy with rage.
Danu took a job at a clothing factory after leaving her abusive husband, wanting to stand up on her own as an independent woman. But she nearly lost her life to it.
She remembers how her back pain started after standing up all night. Then came the leg pain. Over time, the pain worsened, and doctors diagnosed her with arthritis. She later developed a persistent dry cough, cold and fever, and was eventually diagnosed with pneumonia and taken to hospital. “My work was killing me,” she said.
Danu has many friends who still work in the garment factories.
“My roommates are scared for their life, but they are going to work again. They can’t have paid leave. Factories tell them that they don’t have money to pay them. These women make hundreds and thousands of clothes for them, and factories don’t have money? It’s a bunch of lies.” Danu said with a sigh. “I’m happy that I’m no longer a garment worker.” ●