Friday, September 11, 2009

UN extremely concerned about Sri Lanka's detention of staff members

UNITED NATIONS - THE United Nations on Thursday called on Sri Lanka to respect the human rights of two UN employees who have been held without charge since June on suspicion of collaborating with Tamil separatists.

'The UN has been and is extremely concerned about the continuing case of the two national UN staff members detained by the Sri Lankan authorities in June,' deputy UN spokesman Marie Okabe said.

She said the two men, both Tamils, had been travelling in the area around Vavuniya, an embattled northern town that served as a de facto front line in the decades-old civil war that climaxed with a massive offensive in May by Sri Lankan troops who defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

'The UN has been particularly concerned about suggestions that the two staff members may have been mistreated in the first days of their detention,' Ms Okabe said.

'If these allegations are validated, this will be a violation of Sri Lankan and international law.' Ms Okabe said the United Nations raised the allegations with the Sri Lankan government 'both orally and in writing' and called for 'due process to be swiftly applied.'

'The government should duly notify the secretary-general of the case and any charges against the two men and request for the immunity as UN staff to be waived, or they should be released,' Ms Okabe said.

One of the two men disappeared on June 11 and the other two days later, and their arrests by authorities were revealed June 20 by the UN office in the capital Colombo.

One of them, Charles Raveendran Navaratnam, was working for the UN refugee agency UNHCR in Vavuniya, while the other, Kanthasamy Sounthararajan, worked for the UN Office for Project Services.

According to complaints put before the Supreme Court by the men's lawyers, copies of which were obtained by AFP, the two men were mistreated, particularly in the initial days of their detention, by police who suspected them of collaborating with the LTTE, which the government considers a terrorist organisation.

© The Straits Times

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Friday, September 11, 2009

SRI LANKA: Women want better pay, Out of Free Trade Zones

By Amantha Perera - (IPS) - The room is dingy and cramped. The walls are unplastered and its rough cement edges can scrape the skin easily. Furniture is strewn all over the place, plastic chairs stacked one on top of the other, boxes on top of them, handbags hanging from the wall and clothes on a rack. A small kerosene cooker is kept on the side of the room while a bicycle is parked next to the only bed in the 10-by-10-feet room.

This is home to 26-year-old Anoma Piyaselee and her husband, who works as a welder that entitles him to a salary less than hers.

Piyaselee is one of some 52,000 migrant women workers scraping by on their meagre salaries in Sri Lanka’s industrial hubs, formally known as Free Trade Zones (FTZs), where factories are set up under various tax benefits and other incentives that sometimes undermine labour rights.

According to Stand-up, a civil society group made up of former and current FTZ workers, more than 90 percent of the workforce at Katunayake FTZ consists of women whose ages range from 18 to 30. Jobs, mostly garments-related, are intended primarily for them. The few males employed are either machine operators or in higher-paying positions.

Piyaselee’s story echoes those of many others in FTZs. Not only do they endure harsh living conditions, they also constantly struggle with the agony of being away from their families. And no matter the long hours spent at work, their paltry wages will never be enough to sustain their families’ basic needs. Many more will have similar stories, others more tragic perhaps. Piyaselee is at least a survivor of the grind looking for a way out.

Recently married Piyaselee hails from the central hilly district of Nuwera Eliya, popular among the locals for its tea and among holidaymakers for its cool climate. She had dreamt of pursuing a higher education, but economic woes at home drove her to forego her dream and look for a job. After all, her widowed mother’s measly earnings as a vegetable vendor could hardly feed, clothe and send her and her three siblings to school.

Four years into doing odd jobs, Piyaselee ended up in 2002 at Katunayake Free Trade Zone, south of the capital Colombo and about 200 kilometres from her village. It is here that she has spent most of her life since then. The zone, with over 80 factories and some 100,000 workforce, is considered the largest of 14 FTZs across the country.

"I first came here as a helper, then after six months, I was made a (machine) operator, and I have remained an operator for the last six years," she told IPS while sitting inside her little room on her only weekly off-day, Sunday. "Nothing has changed."

Some things have changed, though. She earns around 12,000 rupees (about 120 U.S. dollars) a month. When she first came to the FTZ her salary was a paltry 3,400 rupees (34 U.S. dollars). Current newcomers draw a higher salary, around 6,700 rupees (67 U.S. dollars), but still find it hard to make ends meet. Standard benefits like health insurance are uncommon. They are entitled, however, to a maternity leave.

Workers like Piyaselee work for at least eight hours a day and sometimes an extra two hours. A typical working week is six days. Days off are Sundays and the public holiday in lieu of the Buddhist religious holiday, or Poya Day, on every full moon day of the month. The back-breaking daily work schedule does not allow workers like Piyaselee to travel over 200 km back and forth to get home. And they do not even have enough to spare for daily fares.

"We only go home once or twice a year, either over Christmas holidays or during Avurudhu (the traditional New Year festival in mid-April)," she said.

The cycle is the same for most of the workers at FTZ who hail from distant districts. Dulani Wasala, 26, is a widow who works in the same zone as Piyaselee. Despite the abject longing to see her two children every day, she only travels home about thrice a year, unless there is an emergency.

"My mother looks after them. I have no option but to stay (at the FTZ) and work. My smallest son thinks that I have gone to Colombo to bring back his father," she told IPS.

"These are the best days of a young life, but they get sucked into a whirlpool and you cannot get out of it that easy," Ashila Mapalagama, director of Stand-up, told IPS.

The women at FTZs trying to spin their way out of poverty know exactly what Mapalagama means. Piyaselee and her husband have to call their small concrete shack home because that is all they can afford. The rent is around 2,200 rupees (22 U.S. dollars), some 10 percent of their combined monthly salaries. She said they have to spend around 5,000 rupees (50 U.S. dollars) on food and send support to her family back in the village. "Hardly anything is left," she laments.

They have pushed back the idea of becoming parents because of financial strains. "We can’t think about it right now. We need an option to get out of this life to dream of better things," said Piyaselee.

Wasala walks a financial tightrope every month. Like Piyaselee, she makes between 12,000 and 14,000 rupees (120 to 140 U.S. dollars) each month. Every month she sends around 6,000 rupees (60 U.S. dollars) home for her two kids’ upkeep. To survive, she buys foodstuff and groceries on credit, creating a buffer so that she can keep sending money home. "It works, but I am on debt row. That is the only way out," she said.

Mapalagama argued that the only option to get these young women out of poverty is to give them higher salaries. "If you pay these women well enough, then their lives will improve. That is something that the employers, the government and others need to consider if they want to change the trend," she said. "Everything else will be like putting a plaster on an infected wound."

Garment exports brought in 3.4 billion U.S. dollars in 2008, based on data from the Sri Lanka Apparel Exporters Association, which boasts 102 members and accounts for 70 percent of all apparel exports. But dark clouds have been looming over the horizon since the news came out that the European Union (EU) might not extend trade concessions over Sri Lanka’s human rights record, considered the worst in South Asia, according to a 2008 report by the Asian Centre for Human Rights.

There is no confirmation yet on the extension or the withdrawal of the facility known as the Generalised System of Preference Plus, which provides preferential access to the EU market to 176 developing countries, including Sri Lanka. The system is up for review in October, but already nerves are jingling, and understandably so, with the EU accounting for over 36 percent of all exports from this island state.

"If the facility is not extended, we will see some really bad effects on the industry. Already there are fears of 50,000 jobs from the industry either being lost or downsized," Stand-up’s Mapalagama said.

These are not tidings that the likes of Piyaselee and Wasala, waiting to break out of FTZ life, want to hear. "We want to get out, we want to go back to our villages, our homes and live our lives, to be free. We can only do that if we earn more," Piyaselee said.

© Inter Press Service

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