Human rights record could cost textile concession

By 2008, the EU became Sri Lanka's biggest export destination for garments

Thousands of jobs in Sri Lanka's crucial textile industry are under threat following a European Union (EU) report over alleged human rights abuses and the failure to implement human rights conventions in the country.


As a result, a key trade concession worth more than US$100 million could be withdrawn, EU officials suggest.  


“It’s like foreign aid. It was there to help people like us get better pay,” Suwarna Malkanthi, a 27-year-old garment worker, said in the factory town of Katunayake, about 30km north of the capital, Colombo.  


“We appeal to those who are going to make a decision to think twice about suspending it. If they do that a lot of jobs will be lost and some of our families will lose all income.”


On 19 October, the EU released an investigative report examining whether Sri Lanka should continue receiving tariff concessions known as the Generalized System of Preference Plus (GSP+). 

The report refers to the lack of freedom of movement of civilians in camps: Serious restrictions have been placed on freedom of movement, notably concerning the thousands of persons interned in IDP camps.

According to the report, the Sri Lankan government was in breach of implementing the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention against Torture and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Sri Lanka has until 6 November to make representations to the EU and a final decision on the tariff’s extension will be taken in the next two months, EU spokesman for trade, Lutz Güllner, said.


The EU was the single largest importer of Sri Lankan apparel products in 2008, with trade worth $1.6 billion, and the GSP+ tariff concession helped to make the EU its biggest market, surpassing the US, according to the World Bank’s latest Economic Update.


If the facility is suspended, it could raise the cost of the exports by 10-12 percent, one factory owner said. 



Save the Children
Recent arrivals from the north line up for relief assistance outside a government camp in Vavuniya. Thousands of Tamil civilians have fled the fighting in the north over the past month
Tuesday, May 5, 2009
Sri Lanka's ethnic problem...
Recent arrivals from the north line up for relief assistance outside a government camp in Vavuniya. Thousands of Tamil civilians have fled the fighting in the north over the past month

Photo: Save the Children
International pressure over the plight of thousands of Tamil civilians now in camps continues more than five months after the war was officially declared over

Livelihoods threatened


More than 250,000 people are employed in the garment industry - a sector accounting for 10 percent of GDP. Many work 12 hours a day, six days a week, in mundane jobs paying just $150 per month. Their very livelihoods depend on the decision.


“I really don’t know much about GSP+,” Anusha Kumari, 29, a factory worker at the Katunayake Free Trade Zone, one of 12, with more than 100,000 employees, told IRIN.


“But we are nervous about what we hear and read in newspapers, that it can be removed and factories will close,” she said.


Achila Mapalagama, head of Stand-up, an activist group, said there were fears that withdrawal of GSP+ could affect 50,000 jobs.


“There is no clear data, but the small and medium factories will definitely feel the pinch. The larger ones with better and established buyers will survive,” she told IRIN.

Government under fire


The EU says it is still not clear what will happen in the coming weeks.


“We certainly want to keep the open dialogue going and discuss how we can work together,” Bernard Savage, EU Ambassador to Sri Lanka, told IRIN.


Meanwhile, the government says it is studying the report; however, it refused to cooperate with the investigation when it was announced in October 2008.


The report comes amid growing international pressure on the government to allow thousands of Tamil civilians being kept in closed camps in the north to return home.


According to a government statement on 26 October, the resettlement process was proceeding well, and the number of displaced had fallen from 288,000 to 196,088.


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