The Classic Factory Workers' Nightmare

The Sunday Leader |  By Maryam Azwer | June, 26 2011 |  Share  | Source Article

  • Alleged rapist walks free
  • Sri Lankan authorities accused of ‘doing nothing'
  • Women factory workers live in fear



An alleged serial rapist of Sri Lankan nationality has been freed by Jordanian officials after being arrested last weekend, said a report by the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights (IGLHR).

According to IGLHR, Anil Santha, a general manager for the Classic Fashion Apparel Industry in Jordan, has now returned to work at the factories where several women workers have claimed that they are frequently raped and abused by him.

"After incarcerating Anil Santha on Saturday and Sunday, June 18 and 19, to face charges of rape and torture of a young woman guest worker at the Classic factory, he was suddenly and inexplicably freed. [He] went right back to work at Classic, patrolling the shop floor as if nothing had happened. This was devastating to the workers, and the Jordanian authorities have made a terrible mistake," read the report.

When contacted on Friday (24), Director, IGLHR, Charles Kernaghan, said that "The latest we've heard is that he's been released on bail. He was specifically told that he cannot go back to the factory but that's exactly what he's done, and the workers are completely terrified."

He added that Santha's shocking escape on bail was probably due to the many influential connections that Sanal Kumar, the owner and Chairman of Classic, is believed to have.

"We were told that he would not be granted bail because of the severity of his actions. This just proves there is a concerted effort to terrify workers," Kernaghan said. "Women were just getting their confidence back and were very close to coming forward to give testimony."


Sri Lankan Authorities Aware, but Doing Nothing - IGHLR

To add to the horrors described by the IGLHR, Charles Kernaghan also claimed that Sri Lankan authorities were fully aware of the situation at the Classic factories in Jordan, but chose to ignore them.

"I think the Sri Lanka foreign employment bureau knows exactly what's going on, and they have done nothing," he said. "This is a cover-up. Their main aim is to increase the flow of workers to foreign countries. They are willing to sacrifice young Sri Lankan women for the economy of Sri Lanka."

He also said that his organisation had written to Sri Lankan authorities, but that they had not received any response.

"These women are not in a position to fight back. If they testify, they will be beaten by Classic managers, and not only forcibly deported, but shamed. From what I understand, they believe that their lives are ruined, and their chances of having a successful marriage are next to zero," said Kernaghan.

He said that he was aware that Sri Lankan officials had recently visited the Classic factories, but that he had little faith in the outcome. "Given their track record, they will be more interested in covering up rapes than revealing them. We don't know if they [the women] told them the truth, or if they were too scared."

He went on to say that "If the Sri Lankan Government wants these women to testify, it would be easy. There are ways to do it. Turn to a responsible Women's Rights Organisation for assistance. Take the women to a safe location, and guarantee that their names would never be made public."

Sexual Abuse, Forced Deportations and Constant Fear

Explaining how the IGHLR had stumbled upon the abuse taking place at Classic's factories, Kernaghan said, "We have worked in Jordan for a number of years. We also have an enormous network of workers in factories, who keep us posted. We have carried out three campaigns on Classic. How it came to the sexual abuse charges, is when we were in Jordan in December last year and we had a secret meeting with Classic factory workers."

It was an earlier IGLHR report titled ‘Sexual Predators and Serial Rapists Run Wild at Wal-Mart Supplier in Jordan' that first revealed that scores of young Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi and Indian women workers at Classic, lived in fear of their managers, due to the frequent rapes and abuse they had to endure.

In the preface to this report, Kernaghan explains how "The women, whose lives were destroyed, taped their testimonies using cell phones. When we returned to the United States, we had them translated from Sinhalese into English. When were finally able to watch the tapes, we sat there and cried. We were stunned at how these young Sri Lankan women had been raped and tortured, while sewing clothing for the largest retailer on the face of the earth, Wal-Mart, and for Hanes, the most popular label in the United States," he said.
The report also highlighted dismal living and working conditions, forced deportation of women who either refused sexual advances of managers or got pregnant as a result of being raped, and even incidents of torture that took place at Classic.

The more recent report also claims that Classic's Indian owner and Chairman, Sanal Kumar, is a close friend of Santha's, and accuses Kumar for continuing to employ Santha despite the terrible allegations made against him. Santha, it was alleged, also has a history of abusing young women, previously in Tanzania and Dubai.

Kernaghan also said that Santha was not the only rapist at the Classic factories. "Apparently there is another quality control manager named ‘Priyantha' who viciously rapes young Sri Lankan women. Also, Anil uses a go-between, a Bangladeshi woman supervisor named Juma, who brings the women to him. If Sri Lankan authorities were serious at all they would talk to this woman."
He said that women who were raped were often told they were being transferred to a new factory, and asked to get into a Classic company van. Santha instead took them to a hotel, where he brutally raped them, before taking them back to the factory.

IGLHR also claims that Jordan's Ministry of Labour has been aware of the sexual abuse these women have suffered since as early as 2007, but has done nothing about it.

Describing the workers' suffering, IGLHR said that, "According to witness testimonies, workers are routinely cursed at, hit and shortchanged of their wages for failing to reach their mandatory production goals. To press the women to work faster, managers grope and fondle them."

In its reports, IGLHR has also drawn attention to popular US apparel brands, such as Hanes and Target, whose clothing is manufactured by Classic. IGLHR says that these corporations are also partly responsible for not monitoring workers' conditions or taking steps to prevent what has taken place.

More importantly, though, said Kernaghan, is the role the Sri Lankan Government ought to be playing. "It all sits in the hands of the Sri Lankan Government. If they had the integrity to do a genuine investigation, they would take a picture of Anil and show it to people at hotels and ask if they had seen him enter the hotel with a young woman," he said, adding that "I believe the women will also testify if they have the support of their Government. Right now, they have to fight Anil, they have to fight Sanal Kumar, and they also have to fight their own Government. They feel completely isolated."


Minister's Response
Following the IGLHR Director's accusations against Sri Lankan authorities, The Sunday Leader contacted Minister of Foreign Employment Promotion and Welfare, Dilan Perera, for a comment. The Minister however immediately said that "We are yet to find any information. The people of that NGO have also left Jordan. We are writing to them, we are emailing them, and they are not responding. If you could please find the NGO people who reported this, you might get more information. There are no complaints to the police, no complaints to the embassy. We have sent a special team there, but workers are saying nothing of that sort happened," said Minister Perera in a rush, before hanging up.

Another attempt was made soon afterwards, to inform the Minister that the NGO in question had in fact provided us with not just information but had also claimed Sri Lankan authorities were turning a blind eye to the plight of the Jordanian factory workers. Minister Perera however said he was not in a position to speak because he was traveling.
We Never Received Any Complaints - SLBFE
When contacted on Friday (24), Chairman, Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE), Kingsley Ranawaka, said that local authorities had never received complaints from Sri Lankan factory workers at Classic regarding the alleged rapes and sexual harassment.

"Our officers did visit the factory when a strike broke out a few months ago, but no such issue surfaced even at the time of that strike. Until the issue was revealed by the NGO, we had not even received any complaints," said Ranawaka.

"We have sent a lady officer from the Foreign Employment Bureau, and an officer from the Special Investigations Division, to investigate into this matter," he added. "Until they report back to us we can't really comment. We also need to find the people who have made these complaints."

When asked if the SLBFE had communicated with the IGLHR regarding this, he said that "there was one time when they said they were going to meet these workers at the factory. Some of our officers went to the factory on the day, but they [IGLHR representatives] didn't show up. We emailed them later, but didn't receive a reply."

Ranawaka also said that the Special Investigations officer sent to Jordan was expected to interview and record statements of workers who claimed they were sexually abused. "If such incidents did indeed take place, the workers have an opportunity to make their statements," he said.