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Ansell workers rally and show strength in Sri Lanka

20 February, 2014Dismissed workers at Ansell Lanka have marched on the streets of the Biyagama free trade zone in Sri Lanka to show they will not give up until they are reinstated. IndustriALL demands government mediation after the Supreme Court instructed Ansell to find a settlement with the union.

294 workers in Biyagama, one of Sri Lanka’s Free Trade Zones, are living a hard life. The workers were fired in October last year when striking in support of 11 sacked colleagues and trade union representatives at Australian multinational Ansell, maker of surgical and industrial gloves.  Four months of unemployment is taking its toll on the workers.

Athula Kamal, branch president of IndustriALL Global Union’s Sri Lankan affiliate, the Free Trade Zones and General Services Employees Union (FTZGSEU), has worked at Ansell for more than 20 years as a machine operator. In 2013 he was summarily fired. The only reason given for the sacking was telling the police that management was involved when two men on a motorbike assaulted him.

The labour commissioner ruled that Athula should be reinstated. When management refused, workers launched a strike in October, after which close to 300 workers were fired.

“We launched the strike peacefully,” says Athula. “Authorities have ordered Ansell to reinstate the staff but have so far refused to do so. This is now the longest running strike in Sri Lanka.”

Puyumi Philanka Abeywickrama is a shop floor worker and labour activist. She is among the 294 workers who lost their jobs and income four months ago. The family survives on her husband’s salary, but Puyumi says that in many families both breadwinners were employed by Ansell and are now struggling to make ends meet. Donations cover some of the basics, such as schoolbooks for the children, but there are also examples of no money for medication with tragic results.

“I have been employed at Ansell for 13 years; others have put in many more years. Our blood, sweat and tears helped make this company successful,” Puyumi says. “We are not demanding higher salaries, we’re merely asking for our jobs back.”

“I have no faith in the judicial system in this country,” adds Athula. “But I believe in our trade union and its strength. This is where I find the inspiration to continue the struggle. And we will win, on behalf of all workers in this country.”

IndustriALL launched a campaign demanding Ansell to reinstate the 294 workers. So far 11,000 protest emails have been sent to the management. IndustriALL has also lodged a complaint against Ansell to the OECD.

Lower courts have ruled in favour of reinstatement of the fired workers, but the Supreme Court suspended the judgment and instructed Ansell instead to negotiate a settlement with the union.

On a recent mission to Sri Lanka, IndustriALL's general secretary, Jyrki Raina, met with labour authorities and President Mahinda Rajapaksa to stress the importance of reaching a solution in the Ansell strike and ending human suffering. Earlier in February, the labour ministry filed charges against the company for unfair labour practices.

Speaking to Ansell workers in Biyagama on 16 February, Jyrki Raina praised the courage of workers and promised continued IndustriALL support action:  

Please stay strong and united. We are informing Ansell’s customers, hospitals and medical centers, that they are getting dirty gloves made by replacement workers, while people are suffering. We will continue to chase Ansell as long as is needed for reaching a fair settlement.