Striking NEXT workers mark partial victory overcoming bosses thuggery

Amidst accusations of anti-social elements and thugs being used to quell protests in their Colombo factory, UK based fashion giant Next has come down in partially meeting the demands of the striking workers.

The workers at the factory accuse the factory management of not honouring their commitment on the annual bonus generally paid during the Christmas period.

Now after tripartite negotiations the apparel maker has agreed to pay 50% of the bonus and the talks will continue on 8th January 2021. Meanwhile employees returned to work on Wednesday (30), after Christmas holidays.

Job losses

Apparel industry workers in the Katunayake Free Trade Zone (FTZ) have suffered considerable job losses and wages due to the covid-19 pandemic and are facing economic hardship for over six months due to lockdown.

Workers at the Next apparels production centre were shocked when they were told their regular bonus for the year 2020 would not be paid due to loss in productivity, which resulted in the workers protesting and subsequently striking work. As the protest gained momentum, the factory allegedly resorted to using thugs apart from police forces to put down the unrest.

The said to be thugs also blocked the employees trying to enter the factory through the main entrance, which the employees claim was intimidating. They also question the rationale of bringing in unknown persons and thugs when already a posse of policemen were present at the spot.

“Around 150 Police officers were brought and in addition underworld thugs too were present and we were intimidated,” a female employee told local media.

The employees say they turned up for work even in challenging and tiring circumstances due to the Corona virus Pandemic and travel restrictions in spite of being sick at times for the reason that bonus payment was assured before Christmas holidays.

“But the management instead of honouring their commitment resorted to arm twisting tactics including bringing in thugs to threaten and stifle our protests”.

The employees say, “this is the decision of the management. They took a sudden decision and it was purely their decision. No discussion took place. Never was it said that bonus will not be paid”.

According to the employees the management told them ‘bonus was not possible since they were incurring a loss, however they would discuss with higher-ups and get back to the employees’ and then telephone calls went unanswered.

Expensive PCR tests

The UK fashion giant’s Colombo factory employs around 2000. At least 600 are affected by the second wave of the Corona virus according to Chamila Thushari, Programme director Dabindu Collective.

As such, many employees self isolated and some went to the quarantine centres and their pay was cut for non working days, which has pushed the employees in to financial distress making life more difficult for them in the pandemic period, Thushari further says.

Since the bonus was denied initially, many employees were unable to go their home towns for Christmas and were struck in their nests during the holiday period. Also, the local health authorities in their respective home towns advised those returning home for holidays could do so only after the PCR test and the employees in the FTZ can’t afford the test.

Another factory, Cheap Way Lanka, where workers were engaged in an ongoing protest demanding bonus payments has been closed down indefinitely, says Thushari.

It’s now a wait and watch situation not only for the employees of Next but also for the numerous production units in the FTZ at Katunayaka.



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