A long time ago, there was a witty column in a Sinhala newspaper that captured the best news headlines of the week and tagged them with its own pithy comments. Today, if that column was there, some of it would go like this.
We can’t sacrifice our sovereignty for the sake of 150 million dollars. Look for other ways – President Rajapaksa at cabinet meeting. (Now they are rich. What is 150 million dollars?) Sri Lanka has back-up for GSP plus – Media Minister Rambukwella (Wonder whether garment girls also have back-ups.) War time human rights violations cannot be avoided – JVP Gen. Sec. Tilvin Silva at media briefing (Okay. Say so. Human rights were violated and the JVP supported.) Government to continue dialogue with EU on GSP+ — External Affairs Minister Peiris at media briefing on June 24. (What will happen to sovereignty then?) Mental Health Act to protect mental patients – Director Angoda Hospital. (Will politicians get preference?) That perhaps sums up the total story on this much hyped issue of GSP+, doled out for local consumption. “We are patriots, we don’t go kneeling after money at the expense of our sacred sovereignty. But then someone will have go to Brussels for GSP+ without local news headlines,” is how this government plays around common man’s sentiments. “Pluses” we can not do without. “Pluses” have become a popular suffix in Sri Lankan discussion fora. Indians talk of “13 plus”, when it comes to a political solution to the ethnic conflict, in post war Sri Lanka. The Europeans are fixed on GSP “plus” when it comes to apparel exports from Sri Lanka, into their markets. Also in post war Sri Lanka the twain shall not be far from each other, with the ethnic conflict that saw the conclusion of the war throwing up accusations on war crimes and crimes against humanity and the apparel industry getting firmly stitched to pledges on improved human rights and good governance. Sri Lanka first qualified to enjoy the Generalised System of Preferences “Plus” (GSP+) benefits in the European market as one among the 16 countries that qualified in 2005 for three years, ending December 2008. Sri Lanka having applied for the EU trade benefit of a 40% duty reduction, is the only South Asian country to earn that preferred status. It is not only garments that benefit from this, but there are other products that could enter EU markets under GSP+ provided (i) the product is wholly Sri Lankan (ii) the share of value addition in Sri Lanka exceeds that of imported inputs, as in the case of apparel/garment industry and (iii) inputs and value addition are shared within the SAARC region. The Commerce Department says producers of fish and fisheries products, ceramics, plants and foliage, footwear, bicycles, wooden products, processed foods and rubber products, are now slowly developing markets in EU countries using GSP+. In Sri Lanka, we are left dependent on the apparel industry, which is only 65% of all exports under GSP+ trade benefits. The controversy on GSP+ started with the escalation of the war from mid 2006. The first signs of friction between the EU and the Rajapaksa government surfaced in early 2008, when Sri Lanka wanted an extension of GSP+ benefits. A visiting delegation of EU parliamentarians in July 2008 that met President Rajapaksa, opposition party leaders and civil society representatives, felt it would be difficult for Sri Lanka to get an extension of trade benefits from EU, unless Sri Lanka takes action to protect human and political rights and improve press freedom. The European Parliamentarian leading the delegation, Robert Evans told the media in Colombo before their departure that “The European Parliament takes freedom of media and the press very, very seriously.” Europe had insisted that GSP+ concessions would only be given to countries that show good governance. In 2005, when Sri Lanka opted to have GSP+ concessions, it was more than clear and plainly understood that, with it comes the responsibility of fully implementing 27 International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and that some of them need enabling legislation to be made fully effective. Pledge to improve rights It also meant in 2005 that Sri Lanka was tying and stitching its entire apparel industry to “improvement of civil and political rights” through GSP+, which situation would be overseen by the EU. The Sri Lankan government thus left around 300,000 apparel workers as surety, to gain trade benefits from EU, with a pledge that it would improve the civil and political rights of the 19 million people living in Sri Lanka. With GSP+, apparels have now grown as the net foreign exchange earner, next to migrant labour, followed by tea exports. Interestingly and most ironically, these three sectors are wholly dependent on slogging female labour. Apparels alone fetch something like 30% of the total foreign earnings and according to the Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF) spokesman Rohan Masakorale, by 2009, bulk of the apparel exports out of Sri Lanka were to the European markets, dressing the figure at 52 per cent. Out of that total bulk, a massive 75% reach European high street markets with GSP + benefits. “Forget GSP + and go for alternative markets,” therefore comes as “Patriotism +” talk that takes Sri Lanka to an unwanted, unnecessary tragic socio economic crisis. JAAF says over 70 garment factories have already put up shutters. The reason is clear. According to Central Bank reports, in January 2010, Sri Lanka’s apparel exports dropped by about 10% compared to the previous year, that is 2009. During the previous year, the drop was 3.6% from the previous year — 2008. The apparel export projection has therefore been revised from an earlier estimate of 5 billion US dollars in year 2015 to 4 billion, considering the continued global meltdown, although the Apparel Exporters Association believes it could increase exports by 5%, year on year. If on this, the GSP + is taken off, Sri Lankan exporters will not be able to compete in European markets. Leaving rhetoric for local consumption aside, Sri Lanka simply cannot compete in European markets, if it loses the benefit of that 40% tax waiver given through GSP + status. JAAF’s Masakorale is doubtful when he says; “Whether we can retain orders from the EU would depend on whether we can retain our prices without the GSP+.” To survive in competition, the Sri Lankan manufacturers would have to absorb the price difference more fully than partially and this is extremely difficult owing to narrowing margins for some time now. The case is clearly against 300,000 direct employees in the apparel industry, with another 200,000 dependent on it. It is also about the other 35% exports under the GSP + from different sectors whose employee numbers and dependants are unaccounted as yet. How many of them would have to get back to their village culture and new livelihoods is yet to be understood. Certainly the numbers would be huge and the impact would suffocate the rural society. The apparel industry being labour intensive and the most well organised sector ‘minus’ GSP+ would make a rag doll out of this fashionably established industry. The Sri Lankan apparel industry is not what it was when President Premadasa started his 200 garment factory programme in 1991. With that impetus by President Premadasa added to a more vibrant private sector intervention in modernising the whole outlook, the garment industry has developed itself from its basics as a ‘cut, stitch and arrange’ garment trade into a more sophisticated, ‘design and cater to fashion’ industry, with specialisation in different segments of human wear, more into lingerie. This fashionable export growth with better management practices and human resource development over a decade and more, has not been without its local cultural impact on its workforce. The old, timid “Juki girl” from the rural peasant culture is no more. She is now a modern “Miss” in low waist, hip hugger Levis slacks, all sprayed and conditioned with appealing personal care stuff and a ‘close to Weerawansa’ mobile phone, in hand. Attitudes have changed and so have values and perceptions. This change of the whole industry is apparent in how the trade unions behave too. The old, JVP instigated anarchist approach of taking company managers hostage and climbing on water towers, is now unheard of. Now the accent is on negotiations and bi-lateral agreements. Within a growing industry, managements learn and grow. The workforce learns and grow while the rural society that supplies labour also adopts a new culture with an extra cash flow. Patriotism Plus This had been a whole process in semi urban and rural society for a decade and more, zipped to the far away markets in Germany, Netherlands, Sweden and other high end EU markets, the people caught in this social process are not much concerned about. Their concern, most justifiably is their own life. This issue thus goes beyond Rajapaksa’s “Patriotism +” and External Affairs Minister’s baggage carrying for the regime. As EU Delegation Head Robert Evans said, “The door is open. It is a question whether Sri Lanka walks through it. And to walk through it you have to make sure the stumbling blocks are removed.” Stumbling blocs are not many and removing them is not negotiable. All of it is about democratising this country. All of it is about respecting the Constitution and its people. This Rajapaksa regime and President Rajapaksa himself had promised “A judicial process will be introduced to prevent breach of fundamental rights of all citizens and to provide redress expeditiously and in an inexpensive manner, in the event of violation of fundamental rights – Mahinda Chinthanaya; p/37.” The Mahinda Chinthanaya has also promised; “Steps will be taken to include the ‘Charter of Rights’ into the Constitution, based on the declaration of the United Nations and other international treaties to uphold and protect social, cultural, political, economic and civil rights of all Sri Lankans – p/9.” Thus there is no sane reason to say “NO” to the request to strengthen democratic and human rights. In fact it should not have taken this long, after the war was declared over, if what JVP’s Tilvin Silva says about human rights violations during war, is to be accepted as happened. It’s time that professorial bluffing is stopped and issues are solved with respect. The issue is about keeping detainees without charges under both the PTA and emergency law. The issue is about continuing with emergency regulations, when normal law of the land could take care of all issues related to law and order, of course with a decent and a disciplined Police Department. The issue is how such independent governing institutions could be established and improved upon, when the 17th Amendment to the Constitution is being violated in broad day light. It’s not about having to amend or overhaul the Constitution to implement what has been on the demand list for democracy and human rights in this country, as Professor Peiris would wish to publicly lie, saying “If we are to comply with the EU conditions we have to overhaul the constitution. We are not prepared to do that” – media briefing / 24 June. Contrary to this bluffing and lying, it’s all about honouring and respecting the Constitution and implementing the 17th Amendment and not presenting a motion in parliament to extend emergency laws. It’s all about efficiently expediting the judicial process as promised in Mahinda Chinthanaya (page – 37). And this is all about Rajapaksa politics too. It’s about continuing to live by ‘Patriotism Plus,’ even after the war is over. GSP + thus turns into the next issue that the Rajapaksa regime could sustain their patriotic platform for sheer political survival. So again, 300,000 plus would have to sacrifice their jobs for ‘Patriotism Plus’ of this regime.