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New core labour standards report on Sri Lanka

3 November 2010: The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has submitted a new report to provide additional information to the General Council of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in its review of trade policies of Sri Lanka. In the report, the ITUC notes that although Sri Lanka has ratified all eight core ILO Conventions, it has fallen far short of implementing these and continues to restrict trade union rights among others.

Sri Lanka maintains some legal restrictions on trade union organising and collective bargaining and, in practice, the right to organise and the right to collective bargaining are often violated, especially in the Export Processing Zones (EPZs). Sri Lankan employers routinely delay certification votes and fire union activists to prevent workers from joining unions. These problems are especially severe in the EPZs, where the government has encouraged employers to recognise “employees’ councils” instead of trade unions. Even where collective bargaining occurs, the government can and does make strikes illegal by declaring any industry an “essential service”. Sri Lankan law does not prohibit gender discrimination in the private sector and some industries still pay different wage rates to men and women doing the same job. More generally, women are concentrated in low-wage and low-skill sectors.

The ITUC report also notes that child labour is prevalent in Sri Lanka, particularly in agriculture, and forced labour exists in prostitution and domestic work. Sri Lanka ratified ILO Convention No. 138 on Minimum Age of Employment in 2000 and Convention No. 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour in 2001. The minimum age for employment is 14, but, as is the case in a number of countries, the law allows younger children to engage in family agriculture and technical training. Between the ages of 5 and 14, education is compulsory and free and the primary school enrolment rate is 97 per cent. In practice, many children under 14 are engaged in informal economic activity in addition to attending school, particularly in plantation and non-plantation agriculture, especially during harvest periods, and domestic service. Some are engaged solely in economic activity and do not attend school. The fine for employing minors is only 10,000 Sri Lankan Rupees, less than US$100. According to the ITUC, there are no reports of children employed in the EPZs, the garment industry or any other manufacturing export industry.

In addition, the Sri Lankan government has indicated a ban on employing children younger than 18 in 40 of 49 identified hazardous occupations. The US Department of State notes that this ban has not been implemented. The report also notes that child prostitution is prevalent in Sri Lanka, especially in coastal resort areas, and NGOs estimate that around 6,000 children are exploited for commercial sex.

As regards forced labour, the ITUC report notes that Sri Lanka ratified ILO Convention No. 29 on Forced Labour in 1950 and Convention No. 105 on the Abolition of Forced Labour in 2003. While bonded labour is illegal, it reportedly occurs in agriculture, mining and rope-making. Some rural children are employed in debt bondage as domestic servants in urban households. While trafficking of persons is prohibited, some of the 1.8 million Sri Lankans who worked abroad in 2009 found themselves in situations of involuntary servitude. In 2008, the Bureau of Foreign Employment received 9,664 complaints about agencies that recruit for overseas employment. The US Department of State identified a lack of effective enforcement. Women and children are reportedly trafficked within the country for domestic and sexual servitude. Some Thai, Chinese and Russian women have been trafficked into Sri Lanka for sexual exploitation.

In response to human rights violations in Sri Lanka, the European Union (EU) recently revoked trade preferences previously granted under its Generalised System of Preferences (GSP). The United States Trade Representative is also reviewing whether Sri Lanka meets the American Generalised System of Preferences criteria on workers’ rights.

In a concluding statement on the situation in Sri Lanka, ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow said: “As a first step toward maintaining normal access to its largest export markets, Sri Lanka must set out a clear timetable to reform its legislation and practice to meet its international commitments to uphold basic labour rights.”

To download a copy of the full report, click here