Sri Lanka is a constitutional, multiparty democratic republic with a freely elected government. Presidential elections were held in 2019, and Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the presidency. He appointed former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, his brother, as prime minister. In 2020 Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa led the Sri Lankan People’s Freedom Alliance and small allied parties to secure a two-thirds supermajority, winning 150 of 225 seats in parliamentary elections. COVID-19 travel restrictions prevented international observers and limited domestic election observation. Domestic observers described the election as peaceful, technically well managed, and safe considering the COVID-19 pandemic but noted that unregulated campaign spending, abuse of state resources, and media bias affected the level playing field.
The Sri Lanka Police are responsible for maintaining internal security and are under the Ministry of Public Security, formed in November 2020. The military, under the Ministry of Defense (the president holds the defense portfolio), may be called upon to handle specifically delineated domestic security responsibilities, but generally without arrest authority. The 11,000-member paramilitary Special Task Force, a police entity that reports to the inspector general of police (IGP), coordinates internal security operations with the military. Civilian officials maintained control over the security forces. There were credible reports that members of the security forces, primarily the police, committed numerous abuses.
Parliament passed the 20th Amendment to the constitution in October 2020. Opposition political leaders and civil society groups widely criticized the amendment for its broad expansion of executive authority that activists said would undermine the independence of the judiciary and independent state institutions, such as the Human Rights Commission and the Election Commission, by granting the president sole authority to make appointments to these bodies with parliament afforded only a consultative role.
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful and arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings; torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by the government; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; politically motivated reprisals against individuals in other countries; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary and unlawful interference with privacy; restrictions on free expression and media, including violence and threats of violence against journalists, unjustified arrests and prosecutions of journalists, and censorship; restrictions on internet freedom; interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including overly restrictive laws on the organization, funding, or operation of nongovernmental organizations and civil society organizations; restrictions on freedom of movement; serious government corruption; serious government restrictions on or harassment of domestic and international human rights organizations; lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence, including but not limited to domestic and intimate partner violence and sexual violence; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence targeting members of national, racial, and ethnic minority groups; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex persons; existence or use of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults, even if the laws were not enforced; and restrictions on workers’ freedom of association.
The government took minimal steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed human rights abuses or corruption, and there was impunity for both.
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides for the right of workers to form and join unions of their choice. Exceptions include members of the armed forces, police officers, judicial officers, and prison officers. Workers in nonessential services industries, except for workers in public-service unions, have the legal right to bargain collectively. The law does not explicitly recognize the right to strike, but courts recognized an implied right to strike based on the Trade Unions Ordinance and the Industrial Disputes Act. Nonunion worker councils tended to represent labor in export-processing zone (EPZ) enterprises, although several unions operated in the zones. According to the Board of Investment, which operated the EPZs, if both a recognized trade union with bargaining power and a nonunion worker council exist in an enterprise, the trade union would have the power to represent the employees in collective bargaining.
Under emergency regulations of the public-security ordinance, the president has broad discretion to declare sectors “essential” to national security, the life of the community, or the preservation of public order and to revoke those workers’ rights to conduct legal strikes. In addition to the public-security ordinance, the law allows the president to declare services provided by government agencies as “essential” public services. The law prohibits retribution against striking workers in nonessential sectors. Seven workers may form a union, adopt a charter, elect leaders, and publicize their views, but a union must represent 40 percent of workers at a given enterprise before the law obligates the employer to bargain with the union. Unions that do not meet the 40 percent threshold can merge with others and operate as one. The International Trade Union Confederation reported that employers used the 40 percent threshold to refuse to bargain with unions. The law does not permit public-sector unions to form federations or represent workers from more than one branch or department of government. The Labor Ministry may cancel a union’s registration if it fails to submit an annual report for three years.
The law prohibits antiunion discrimination. Labor laws do not cover domestic workers employed in the homes of others or informal-sector workers.
The law allows unions to conduct their activities without interference, but the government enforced the law unevenly. Violations for antiunion discrimination may result in a fine of 100,000 rupees ($500). The law requires an employer found guilty of antiunion discrimination to reinstate workers fired for union activities, but it may transfer them to different locations. These penalties were commensurate with those under other laws involving denials of civil rights, such as discrimination. Only the Labor Ministry has legal standing to pursue an unfair labor practice case, including for antiunion discrimination.
Only the Department of Labor may bring antiunion discrimination cases before a magistrate court, not victims of such discrimination. From 1999 to year’s end, the Labor Ministry filed 14 cases against companies for unfair labor practices under the Industrial Disputes Act. Citing routine government inaction on alleged violations of labor rights, some unions pressed for standing to sue for such practices, while some smaller unions did not want that ability because of the cost of filing cases. Workers brought some labor violations to court under the Termination of Employment and Workmen Act and the Payment of Gratuity Act. Lengthy delays hindered judicial procedures. The Industrial Dispute Act does not apply to the public sector, and public-sector unions had no formal dispute resolution mechanism. In addition, most large-scale private firms in the services sector, other than banks and tourist hotels, prohibited forming or joining a labor union within work premises and included it as a binding clause in the letter of appointment or contracts signed between the employee and the firm; this practice transgresses the country’s legal framework.
The government generally respected workers’ freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively. Public-sector unions staged numerous work stoppages on several issues, ranging from government moves to privatize state-owned enterprises to wage issues. The International Labor Organization expressed concern that EPZ enterprises refused to recognize the right of unions to bargain collectively.
In November 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, President Rajapaksa issued an “extraordinary gazette” order making port workers essential employees. Under the essential services act, any port employee not attending work faces “conviction after summary trial before a magistrate” and is “liable to rigorous imprisonment” of two to five years, a fine between 2,000 and 5,000 rupees ($10 and $25), or both. The essential service acts were previously used to break strikes and protests and negatively impacted workers deemed “essential.” When emergency laws are declared, essential service orders can be extended to the private sector as well.
While some unions in the public sector were politically independent, most large unions were affiliated with political parties and played a prominent role in the political process. Unions alleged that employers often indefinitely delayed recognition of unions to avoid collective bargaining, decrease support for unionization, or identify, terminate, and sometimes assault or threaten union activists. The Ministry of Labor requires labor commissioners to hold union certification elections within 30 working days of an application for registration if there was no objection or within 45 working days if there was an objection.
Seven unions representing EPZ employees made a series of proposals to the labor minister to protect their rights and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. The labor unions that wrote the proposals were supported by 20 civil society organizations. Apparel unions also wrote open letters requesting the government do more to protect their workforce from the global pandemic, including expediting vaccination efforts among garment workers, increasing COVID-19 testing at factories, providing personal protective equipment, and including the industry in general COVID-related lockdowns. While the government took steps to implement a 5,000-rupee ($25) COVID-19 subsidy for EPZ employees, there were reports the subsidy was insufficient, with most workers out of work for months.
On July 7, police arrested former Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna provincial councilors Samantha Vidyaratna and Mahinda Jayasinghe, All-Ceylon Farmers Federation national organizer Namal Karunaratne, Frontline Socialist Party member and Center for Labor Struggles coordinating secretary Duminda Nagamuwa for allegedly violating quarantine regulations. They were arrested for protesting on July 1 in Badulla against the government’s chemical fertilizer ban, protesting with the workers of the State Engineering Corporation of Sri Lanka demanding their salaries be paid on time, and protesting the destruction of the Muthurajawela wetlands north of Colombo. According to the police media spokesman, the suspects were released on bail on July 7.
The forced quarantine of trade union leaders including Ceylon Teachers’ Union general secretary Joseph Stalin, Frontline Socialist Party politburo member Duminda Nagamuwa, and several others following their arrest on July 7-8 for participating in an education-related protest elicited a strong backlash from the opposition and civil society. According to press reports, the Colombo Magistrate Court released all the protesters on bail after rejecting the police’s request to direct them into quarantine, something the courts were not authorized to do. On July 10, the public-health inspectors stated they did not recommend protesters be quarantined, as there were strict guidelines on who can be quarantined and on what grounds. Despite this, press reported police forcibly took the protesters to a government-run quarantine center in Mullaitivu in the northern province. Following pressure by trade unions across the country, lawsuits against the members’ detention, and public criticism at the forced quarantine as a violation of the union leaders’ civil liberties, the government released the members before the standard 14-day period on July 16.
On August 4, police arrested 44 teachers and principals after a protest outside the presidential secretariat in Colombo and detained them at the Harbor police station, releasing them a day later. Other activists and leaders, including leaders from the Progressive Women’s Collective and the Ceylon Teachers’ Union, were arrested for their involvement in protests in July and then later released on bail. The protesters were demanding a solution to salary anomalies and, according to the police spokesperson, were charged with unlawful assembly, obstruction of vehicular movement and main roads, as well as violating quarantine regulations.
According to trade union leaders and worker’s rights organizations, nearly 250,000 teachers participated in more than two months of strikes, and protests and strikes led by railway, postal, plantation, fishermen, and health workers were held throughout the year. Numerous protesters were arrested and charged with violating quarantine regulations, unlawful assembly, or both, while other demonstrators said they faced continued threats and reprisals for leading or participating in protests. Activists noted the quarantine regulations were selectively applied to movements criticizing the government and that the emergency regulations directly impacted workers’ and their ability to strike or protest without fear of reprisals.
On November 10, the prime minister agreed to a two-decade demand by teachers and principals for salary increases, including agreeing to their demand that the entire raise be provided in a single increment, ending months of union strikes and protests (see section 2.b.). Teachers ended their strike on October 25 and returned to teaching, but they refused to participate in nonacademic activities until the prime minister’s November 10 decision.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits all forms of forced and compulsory labor, but penalties were not commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping. The government did not effectively enforce the laws due to inadequate resources, inspections, and remediation efforts, as well as a lack of identification of forced labor cases. Labor Ministry inspections did not extend to domestic workers except in the event of a report of underage domestic workers. The government sporadically prosecuted labor agents who fraudulently recruited migrant workers yet appeared to sustain its monthly meetings to improve interministerial coordination.
Children between the ages of 16 and 18 and women working as live-in domestic workers in some homes were vulnerable to forced labor (see section 7.c.).
Traffickers exploited men, women, and children in forced labor. Traffickers recruited women from rural areas with promises of urban jobs in the hospitality sector, salons, spas, and domestic work but exploited some in forced labor. While conditions for most tea plantation workers on larger corporate tea estates met international certification standards, such as Fair Trade, some smaller tea estate owners exploited men and women in bonded labor. Some NGOs documented cases in which employers “sold” workers’ debts to another estate and forced the workers to move. The same reports stated that some tea estates illegally deducted more than 75 percent of workers’ daily earnings for miscellaneous fees and repayment of debts, including charging workers for the pay slip itself. Three international organizations reported that forced labor continued at approximately nine tea estates.
Police continued to arrest trafficking victims for vagrancy, prostitution, and immigration offenses. Police allegedly accepted bribes to permit commercial sexual exploitation, and NGOs reported that workers in government and private shelters for trafficking victims abused and exploited residents. Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The minimum age for employment was raised from 14 to 16 in January, although the law permits the employment of younger children by their parents or guardians in limited family agricultural work or technical training. The government increased the compulsory age of education from 14 to 16 in 2016. The law prohibits hazardous work for persons younger than 18. The law limits the working hours of children ages 16 and 17 to 10 hours per day. The government estimated less than 1 percent of children – approximately 40,000 – were working, although employment was often in hazardous occupations. The government classifies 71 activities as hazardous. Although the government did not effectively enforce all laws, existing penalties were commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping.
The Labor Ministry made some progress in eliminating the worst forms of child labor. The government appointed district coordinators with responsibility for reducing child labor in all 25 districts and provided new guidelines for district officials. The Department of Labor continued its efforts to monitor workplaces on the list of hazardous work for children. The government reported there were 11 shelters for child victims of trafficking at the provincial level.
Children worked in the construction, manufacturing, mining, transport, street vending, and fishing industries and as cleaners and helpers, domestic workers, and street vendors. Children also worked in agriculture during harvest periods. Children displaced by the war were especially vulnerable to employment in hazardous labor.
The government amended the Employment of Women, Young Persons, and Children Act to prohibit the employment of persons younger than 18 as domestic servants. Family enterprises, such as family farms, crafts, small trade establishments, restaurants, and repair shops, commonly employed children. Criminals reportedly exploited children, especially boys, for child sex trafficking in coastal areas catering to sex tourists (see section 6, Children).
On July 15, a domestic worker age 16 died at the home of former minister and leader of the Muslim political party All Ceylon Makkal Congress Rishad Bathiudeen. The girl reportedly died of self-inflicted burns, but a coroner’s postmortem revealed the victim had been sexually abused over a long period of time. A magistrate court ordered exhumation of the victim’s body for a second postmortem on July 30; announcement of the findings was pending as of December 12.
Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings .
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The constitution prohibits discrimination, including with respect to employment and occupation, based on race, religion, language, caste, sex, political opinion, or place of birth. The law does not prohibit employment or occupational discrimination based on color, sexual orientation or gender identity, age, HIV-positive status, or status regarding other communicable diseases.
Women have a range of workforce restrictions, including caps on overtime work and limits on nighttime shifts. Women are restricted from certain jobs. Women are prohibited from working in mines, except under certain circumstances, and are equated with young persons in laws prohibiting cleaning of transmission machinery while in motion. A previous effort to remove these prohibitions was unsuccessful in the face of opposition from many trade unions. The retirement age for women was raised in November to match that of men.
Employers are required to bear the full cost of providing maternity-leave benefits to their employees for 12 weeks. The labor market was characterized by high female unemployment and low female labor force participation. Unemployment rates for women younger than age 40 were much higher than they were for men, and this discrepancy was also connected to age. A woman between the age of 25 and 39 seeking employment was 3.8 times more likely to be unemployed than a man seeking employment in the same age cohort. An estimated 55 percent of employees in the public sector were men and 45 percent were women. In contrast, 70 percent of employees outside the public sector were men and only 30 percent were women. According to civil society, some groups in the north and east reported experiencing employment and occupation barriers.
The government did not always effectively enforce these laws, and discrimination based on the above categories occurred with respect to employment and occupation. Penalties were commensurate with those under laws related to civil rights, such as election interference. For example, some employers specified positions requiring male or female applicants, and women often earned less than men for equal work. The earnings gap between men and women was 15.9 percent. Companies also openly evaded paying legally mandated maternity benefits through hiring discrimination of young women. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs also described widespread social stigma and harassment and minimal child-care services. The Ministry of Women worked with the World Bank in 2019 to open career centers for women business owners to offer technical and vocational training for in-demand occupations. The ministry also expanded day-care centers across the country and offered tax incentives to cover the salaries for women on maternity leave in 2019, but these centers were not able to operate during the global coronavirus pandemic.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
Wage and Hour Laws: Parliament passed its first-ever national minimum wage law in 2015 and revised it during the year to include a daily minimum wage and raise the monthly minimum by 12.5 percent. The Department of Labor’s wage boards continued to set minimum wages and working conditions by sector and industry in consultation with unions and employers. The minimum private-sector and public-sector wages were above the government’s official poverty line.
The law prohibits most full-time workers from regularly working more than 45 hours per week (a five-and-one-half-day workweek). In addition, the law stipulates a rest period of one hour per day. Regulations limit the maximum overtime hours to 15 per week. Overtime pay is 1.5 times the basic wage and is paid for work beyond 45 hours per week and work on Sundays or holidays. The provision limiting basic work hours is not applicable to managers and executives in public institutions. The law provides for paid annual holidays.
Enforcement of minimum wage and overtime laws was insufficient. Under the Shop and Office Act, penalties for violating hours of work laws are a fine of 500 rupees ($2.50), six months’ imprisonment, or both. The law provides for a fine of 50 rupees ($0.25) per day if the offense continues after conviction. These penalties were commensurate with those for similar crimes, such as fraud. In 2018 amendments to the factory’s ordinance and the wages board ordinance increased fines for nonpayment of salaries to workers under the purview of the wages board to between 5,000 rupees ($25) and 10,000 rupees ($50), along with imprisonment not exceeding one year.
Labor Ministry inspectors verified whether employers fully paid employees and contributed to pension funds as required by law. Unions questioned, however, whether the ministry’s inspections were effective. The Labor Department used a computerized labor information system application designed to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of inspections, but officials and trade unions noted concerns that the system was not well maintained.
Occupational Safety and Health: The government sets occupational health and safety standards. Workers have the right to remove themselves from dangerous situations, but many workers had no knowledge of such rights or feared that they would lose their jobs if they did so. Authorities did not effectively enforce occupational safety and health standards in all sectors. Penalties for violations of occupational safety and health laws were commensurate with those for crimes such as negligence. The Labor Ministry’s resources, inspections, and remediation efforts were insufficient. The number of labor inspectors was insufficient for the country’s workforce. Occupational health and safety standards in the rapidly growing construction sector, including infrastructure development projects such as port, airport, and road construction, as well as high-rise buildings, were insufficient. Employers, particularly those in the construction industry, increasingly used contract employment for work of a regular nature, and contract workers had fewer safeguards. Labor regulations apply whenever a company has at least one permanent employee, but seasonal workers are not necessarily covered.
When the government imposed a countrywide lockdown on March 20 due to COVID-19, employers in free-trade zones required workers to continue working until cases spread and workers protested. After one month, several large companies resumed work, putting workers in unsafe conditions amid rising COVID-19 infections. There were reports that wages were not paid or were delayed.
The Industrial Safety Division of the Department of Labor compiles annual information on workplace safety. During 2020, 71 fatal and 1,116 nonfatal workplace accidents were reported to the Department of Labor. Similar data for 2021 were not available at year’s end.
Informal Sector: According to the 2019 Labor Survey, approximately 62 percent of the country’s workforce was employed informally, and legal entitlements enjoyed by formal-sector workers such as Employees Provident Fund, Employees Trust Fund, paid leave, gratuity payments, and security of employment were not available to a large majority of the aggregate workforce in the country. Labor inspectors did not monitor wages or working conditions or provide programs or social protections for informal-sector workers. In November media reported most of those working in the informal economy were self-employed and that the informal sector accounted for 87.5 percent of the total employment in agriculture. Local media reported that employees in the informal sector lacked job protections.