Sumithra Hasalaka (Pvt) Limited, which is part of the Sumithra Group explained “unfair and inaccurate allegations” have been made against the Sri Lanka garment supplier and its management after IndustriAll claimed union members in its Hasalaka factory were physically attacked and forcefully prevented from attending a union meeting on 9 February.

The supplier, which is said to work with global apparel brands, including Superdry, Asda and Dillard’s, has written a letter dated 19 February to IndustriAll Global Union’s general secretary, which states:

“It appears you have been misled on the facts and have reacted in haste without full knowledge of the incidents that you refer to, having with you only a skewed perspective from one party motivated by other factors.”

IndustriAll, in an article published on its website, claimed union members were called to a meeting to discuss management’s notice that workers who had received warning letters during the year would not be given a wage increase and that workers who had received two warning letters would not be entitled to a bonus. IndustriAll added the union is affiliated to IndustriAll through the Free Trade Zone and General Services Employees Union (FTZ&GSEU).

The global union went on to suggest that responding to management’s act of repression, workers who attended the meeting decided to go on a strike. Refusing to accept the strike notice, management tried to force workers to resign from the union.

IndustriAll claimed: “When workers arrived at the factory in the morning on 10 February, management physically assaulted some of them, including the branch union office bearers, severely injuring one woman worker, while forcefully taking them inside the factory to make them sign resignation letters. Union members were forced to file a police complaint.”

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Anton Marcus, joint secretary of FTZ&GSEU stated: “The actions of Sumithra management clearly violate workers’ fundamental rights guaranteed in the country’s constitution, as well as ILO Conventions on freedom of association and the right to organise and bargain collectively. We are willing to continue negotiations with the company provided that management stops all acts of violence and repression against our members.”

IndustriAll’s general secretary Atle Høie added: “It is completely unacceptable to use violence against workers who are merely exercising their fundamental rights. IndustriALL Global Union is calling on Sumithra Group to immediately address the acts of violence and negotiate with the union in good faith.”

IndustriAll also claimed that Sumithra Group has a history of violating workers’ rights and reported that in September 2020, management allegedly stopped providing basic rights to workers, including providing meals and transportation, under the excuse of Covid-19. In addition, management had forced union members to resign from their membership.

However, the head of human resources at Sumthra Group, Maithri Bandaranike, outlined in the letter which was sent direct to IndustriAll and shared with Just Style that the complaints made that one employee was injured at the hands of management are “to our knowledge, incorrect, and we urge you to conduct further investigations to that end”.

The letter continued: “We would be happy to facilitate your offices in this process as we have always been a transparent company upholding a high standard of ethics. More information would be available after the police authorities and we ourselves gather all available evidence and complete investigations in this matter.”

The Sri Lanka supplier also argued that it has “engaged in discussions with the union at all times” and the brand union was made aware of the proposed wage increment on 30 January 2024 when no opposition was expressed.

It added that the company announced the increment to the entire staff after that date when the branch union requested a further meeting with the company and parent union, which was then scheduled for 6 February.

It noted that at the meeting the trade union expressed dissatisfaction with the increment and the management then explained it was the maximum that could be granted at the time. The brand union allegedly informed the company that a meeting for its membership would take place on Friday 9 February at 3.30 pm with the management “pleading” for it to be after working hours or a Sunday to avoid interrupting “three urgent consignments having to be shipped”.

The supplier claims the time and date of the meeting was in “callous disregard” for the consequence,” and added that a continent of union members totalling 167 left work at the factory to attend the meeting.

It continued that the decision to carry out work stoppage on 10 February was not communicated to the company before that date and management only became aware of it when that morning “some employees collected outside the main gate of the factory and allegedly “attempted to forcibly obstruct the transport buses from entering the factory gate”.

Sumithra Group claimed the total number who engaged in work stoppage that day was 132 with most expressing their wish to work. However, it also alleged that “the acts of intimidation, aggression, incitement and violence were initiated by a handful of union employees who physically obstructed the staff buses from entering the company gate”.

The letter continues: “Though they were requested to step aside, they did not do so and instead engaged in an altercation with one executive. The video footage available demonstrates the illegal obstruction and aggression of the few union members against the transport facility.”

The supplier also explained the incident and those that followed are being fully investigated at present and law enforcement authorities of Sri Lanka have been duly informed to carry out their own independent investigations as well, by gathering all available video footage.

It noted: “Our company has a zero-tolerance policy for violence of any sort and should any executive or employee have been engaged in any violent, acts you can rest assured he/she will be duly dealt with in accordance with the disciplinary procedure of the company.”

A Superdry spokesperson told Just Style: “We are aware of the current issue at the Hasalaka factory in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and are working closely with everyone involved to resolve the situation as swiftly as possible.”

Asda and Dillard’s had not responded to Just Style’s request for comment at the time of going to press.