I am interested in evaluating the poor working conditions that are present within certain export processing zones (EPZs) through a human rights perspective. Throughout the course of these blog posts, I plan to analyze the historical context behind which certain inequalities emerged within EPZs and thoroughly discuss women’s treatment. EPZs are designated areas set up by governments to promote the production of both industrial and commercial exports. They are generally located in developing countries and I will specifically focus on the conditions at the EPZs in Sri Lanka. In addition, I will connect the working conditions in Sri Lanka to its neighboring country, Bangladesh. EPZs have become mostly female dominated due the feminization of unskilled labor; women are are also generally cheaper than men to employ. This is problematic because a large number of women workers are abused, mistreated, and exploited. The inhumane working conditions at EPZs have emerged as a result of globalization. Specifically, due to the increase in trade networks, multinational corporations have been able to expand their business, and thus, power has shifted exclusively to business owners, managers, and investors. This shift of power has created a power imbalance between business owners and workers. Owners will ignore safety standards and pay their workers exceptionally low wages in order to keep the cost of goods down. In addition, there is a lack of sanitation, poor ventilation, contaminated drinking water, and female workers are subjected to sexual violence and harassment. Business owners are able to get away with these human rights violations because there are lack of laws that enforce labor standards. The government has failed to enforce labor laws on factory owners because violence against women has unfortunately become so commonplace in Sri Lanka. As a result, female workers are trapped in these conditions because if they retaliate or try to defend themselves, they will be subjected to repeated acts of violence and/or potentially be fired.
One of the main issues in Sri Lanka’s EPZs is the lack of health and safety standards. According to a case study conducted by Takayoshi Kusago and Zafiris Tzannatos, the researchers found that there was no governmental hospital/dispensary in Sri Lanka’s EPZs; though 60% of firms had a first aid box, only 13% had medical units (Kusago & Tzannatos, 1998, pg. 16). The specific culprits of health problems included short rest periods due to overtime and night shift, lack of air- conditioning, and excessive heat generated from machines (Kusago & Tzannatos, 1998, pg. 16). These findings are problematic because the government and business owners are failing to adequately provide workers with a safe, sanitary, and humane working environment. The health problems that arise from EPZs are especially concerning because if a worker gets sick or injured due to these poor conditions, they will be unable to come to work, and thus, will not get paid.
In addition to Sri Lanka, workers are continuing to die in the unsafe factories in Bangladesh. In April 2013, the Rana Plaza clothing factory collapsed near Dhaka killing over 1,000 people. Since then, the big Western clothing companies that have their garments produced in Bangladesh have been pressured to intervene more forcefully to improve safety and working conditions in the workshops they buy from (The Economist, 2013). However, western companies have failed to take proper action against the unsafe working conditions. In October 2013, ten people died when another factory in Bangladesh went up in flames (The Economist, 2013). Western companies and governments are not taking the necessary actions to improve safety standards because their primary interest is keeping costs low.
Furthermore, along with the lack of safety standards and poor working conditions at the EPZs, certain factories in Sri Lanka, in particular, are subjected to closure due to financial issues; as a result, workers become unemployed. According to an article from Sri Lanka’s internet newspaper, ColomboPage, several factories have closed down operations, leaving thousands of employees stranded (ColomboPage, 2013). Ten garment manufacturing factories have been closed in Byname, Nittambuwa, and Katunayake investment zones causing losses of about five billion to the banks (ColomboPage, 2013) Unfortunately, the government has failed to address the issue. This is significant because garment factories are primarily female dominated. In Sri Lanka, women are often responsible for providing for themselves and their families, and thus, they rely on the income they make working at EPZs. Overall, the issues in Sri Lanka’s EPZs are multidimensional; on the one hand, workers continue to suffer from dangerous working conditions, but they also face the threat of unemployment due to ongoing financial issues within the country.
Lastly, the concerning working conditions at both Sri Lanka and Bangladesh’s EPZs are violating The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The unsafe conditions specifically violate part of Article 23 which states “everyone has the right to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment…” (UDHR, 1948) Workers are denied these rights because there are lack of medical units at EPZs, limited rest periods, poor ventilation, they are subjected to being killed due to factory fires, and the government has failed to properly compensate workers when they become unemployed due to factory closures. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), there are certain countries that openly exclude EPZs from the national labor legislation and system of labor-management relations; in Bangladesh, EPZs are excluded from the scope of the country’s Industrial Relations Ordinance, which provides for organization and bargaining rights in other sectors (ILO, 1998) This is problematic because there are evident human rights violations in EPZs, and thus, EPZs need to be included in the national labor systems so workers are provided with the rights they deserve.
DHAKA. (2013, October 26). Bursting at the seams. The Economist. Retrieved from http://www.economist.com/news/business/21588393-workers-continue-die-unsafe-factories-industry-keeps-booming-bursting-seams
Kusago, T., & Tzannatos, Z. (1998, January). Export Processing Zones: A Review in Need of Update. Retrieved from https://core.ac.uk/download/files/153/6314311.pdf
ILO. (1998, September 28). Export processing zones growing steadily. Retrieved from http://www.ilo.org/global/about-the-ilo/newsroom/news/WCMS_007997/lang–en/index.htm
Sri Lanka private sector companies are facing closure due to financial issues – trade union. (2013, January 17). ColomboPage. Retrieved from http://www.colombopage.com/archive_13A/Jan17_1358398337JR.php
United Nations General Assembly. (1948). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/