Free Trade Shame
“I am ashamed any one in the world has to work under these conditions,” says Christian World Service (CWS) Projects
Coordinator Elizabeth Mackie, returning from a visit to the Free Trade Zones of Sri Lanka where thousands of young women
are trapped into exploitative, unsafe and poorly paid work.
As New Zealand enters talks with China over a new Free Trade agreement, CWS is calling for the government to look at the
‘facts on the ground’ in free trade zones in Asia. Such zones are havens for exploitation and human rights abuses of the
world’s poor. “If we enter these agreements knowing how bad the situation is for workers, we are paying too high a price
for our cheap imports,” says Elizabeth Mackie. “We cannot just ignore the plight of the poor forced to work in such
In Sri Lanka’s free trade zone, some factories have been forced to improve working conditions in response to pressure
from European Union markets and international calls to allow unions and workers rights. They have been surprised to find
they can look after their workers and still make a profit.
For the majority of the Free Trade Zone workers around Colombo, however, appalling living and working conditions remain
the norm. Elizabeth Mackie heard first hand accounts of the horrors young Sri Lankan women endure as they try to earn a
basic living and extra support for their families. “Women are often working 10 hour shifts, six days a week and still
remain below the international poverty line. They earn less than $1US a day.”
It is not just the poor pay that is a problem. “The factories think they have total control of the workers’ pay. In one
case, the factory management wanted to dock the women’s wages to pay for the company’s electricity bill,” she says.
Women can lose one seventh of their monthly pay for missing part of a day’s work and two sevenths of a month’s pay for
making a production error. “These women have to borrow money for their food and accommodation. At the end of the month,
if their pay has been docked they can’t pay their debts. They become trapped in a poverty cycle”. The workers are often
given no explanation for the deductions in their pay and it can be dangerous to ask questions. “One woman was dismissed
after a spotless record of 17 years with the factory. When she went to ask why, she was beaten by security guards and
had to be hospitalised.”
Sexual violence and harassment, intimidation, long hours, workplace injuries, unfair dismissals, refusal to allow
medical treatment, illegal bans on unions, and compulsory unpaid overtime are usual practice as young women are
exploited to earn handsome profits for the transnational companies given tax breaks and other incentives to set up shop
in Sri Lanka.
CWS is supporting the workers in the free trade zones in their efforts to improve their working and living conditions
and is campaigning for fairer international trade rules that ensure everyone has food, water, health, education and a
safe, fair livelihood.
Christian World Service is the Development, Justice and Aid Agency of the
Conference of Churches in Aotearoa New Zealand