Corporate Social Responsibility and Covid

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

A shorter version of this article was published in Ceylon Today on October 15 2020. I have updated it to take account of further developments.

While I was busy writing more stuff about how the west had ignored Sri Lanka’s relative success in dealing with the pandemic, I began hearing rumours that there was a new cluster of Covid cases among garment workers. Concerns about how this cluster had arisen were posted on Facebook. The Facebook poster pinpointed Brandix as the apparel company involved. Later news reports confirmed that a 39-year-old woman worker from the Brandix factory in Minuwangoda had tested positive for coronavirus and further positive cases are still being reported on a daily basis.

New Cluster

Chief Epidemiologist Dr Sudath Samaraweera has stated that the woman is not the origin of the cluster as there was evidence of respiratory infections among the Minuwangoda factory workers since September 20. Dr Samaraweera said the woman would have contracted the virus from someone else and the virus may have entered the cluster at least ten days or even two weeks earlier. He said it would be difficult to identify the origin case from among nearly 800 cases. Now it will be even more difficult because numbers are constantly rising. Up to October 10, 1186 had tested positive since since the first confirmed case at the Brandix factory and 10,250 people were quarantined at 96 centres run by the military.

As of October 21, he total number of cases reported from the Minuwangoda cluster was 2,451. The total number of deaths from the virus in Sri Lanka is still officially stated as 13.

Uphill Task

If the origin cannot be traced, Brandix will have an uphill task dealing with the allegations being made. The Facebook poster alleges that because the factory was struggling to meet the demand for face masks for export to the US, Brandix brought garment workers from India on charter flights using Mattala Airport. The rumour was that a group of Indians arrived at Mattala Airport from Visakhapatnam, India on the 22nd of September on flight UL 1159, chartered by Brandix. Overseas clients would not accept products made in India because of slacker procedures than in Sri Lanka and it is well-known that the virus is raging through India. It is alleged that Brandix knew that the factory workers were not subject to correct testing in India before boarding the flight.

It is also alleged that Brandix promised to quarantine the imported Indian workers themselves at their corporate premises but failed to follow national quarantine procedures of 14 days strict isolation and 14 further days of restricted movement; it is alleged that the Indian workers were only quarantined for seven days. The local factory manager is alleged to have ordered six workers with Coronavirus symptoms (including fever) to go back to work on the factory floor.

Brandix issued a number of statements denying the allegations. On October 7, a statement said, “no parties from India or any other country have had access to the facility during this period.” Sri Lanka’s Army Commander and Head of the COVID-19 Task Force Lt Gen Shavendra Silva supported Brandix’s version saying that a group of Indians never arrived in Sri Lanka.

Flights of Fancy

In one statement a Brandix spokesman said Brandix DOES NOT have the authority to operate a private aircraft in & out of India!”  However, A Senior Manager at Sri Lankan Airlines said “Ashroff Omar (Brandix CEO) was appointed as a Director to the national carrier only recently. He should not have abused his privileges as a Director and used the airline to cater for his private business needs. God knows what deal he made and how much the airline charged him for these three special charter flights? He should declare all of these to the public and resign gracefully rather than hanging on to this post of Director disgracefully.”

In the October 7 press release, Brandix said, “We operated three chartered flights from Visakhapatnam, India for our Sri Lankan employees working in India and their families, who returned to Sri Lanka.”

It is not strictly true to say, as the October 7 statement did, that they did not bring workers from India if they are admitting to bringing Sri Lankan workers from India.

Officials at Mattala Airport and Sri Lankan Airlines refused to divulge details of the passengers on the flights. A senior Brandix official who wished to remain anonymous who is undergoing mandatory quarantine at a government regulated quarantine centre said that there are Indian workers attached to the Minuwangoda factory.

Protocols Followed?

Brandix denies the rumour that they bypassed the normal quarantine rules. “We confirm that they, including their families, followed the Sri Lanka Government protocol for the prevention and control of COVID-19, which includes PCR testing and a 14-day mandatory quarantine at a government regulated quarantine facility, as well as the 14-day self-quarantine process done under the supervision of the respective PHIs. Further to this, it must also be noted that none of these Sri Lankans nor their family members visited the Minuwangoda manufacturing facility.” The company is supported in this assertion by Lt Gen Shavendra Silva.

PHIs Deny Involvement

However, M Balasooriya, Secretary of the PHIU (Public Health Inspectors Union) said that, had any one of those who were brought to Sri Lanka from Visakhapatnam undergone the 14 day mandatory quarantine at a government-regulated quarantine centre, they would have been handed over to the PHIs to supervise the remaining 14 day self-quarantine period. Mr Balasooriya claims that no PHIU members ever supervised any of those workers brought into Sri Lanka.

An anonymous senior production associate at the factory who is in quarantine said, “I am hundred percent sure that I did not visit anywhere else. Therefore, I am certain that I contracted the virus within the factory.”

Outsourcing of Responsibility

A Brandix spokesman says: “We have identified that the primary female party is the owner of a hostel, while the two members occupying her hostel and the supervisor being referred to are employed by a third-party cleaning service provider contracted by the Brandix Minuwangoda facility. We confirm that none of these individuals are employees of Brandix”. That’s OK then? We have seen in the UK that outsourcing often means outsourcing of responsibility.

Corporate Social Responsibility

Many years ago, I was commissioned by the editor of Serendib, the in-flight magazine of Sri Lankan Airlines to write an article about the Garments without Guilt initiative. Brandix was a leading light in this initiative. Garments without Guilt enabled Sri Lanka Apparel to forge a niche for itself in western markets where companies and consumers were uncomfortable after revelations about Asian sweatshops. It was ironic that the EU decided to use GSP + as a stick with which to beat Sri Lanka over alleged war crimes. Kumar Mirchandani of Sri Lanka Apparel told me at the time that the association would not abandon its principles. “Whatever the competition might try, Sri Lanka Apparel is committed to ethical business. There is no excuse for unethical behaviour, no matter what the economic conditions are. This is the message Sri Lanka Apparel is sending”.

I also wrote about Corporate Social Responsibility in Lanka Monthly Digest. To quote myself: “CSR has been defined as the continuing commitment by business to behave ethically and contribute to economic development, while improving the quality of life of the workforce and their families as well as that of the local community and society at large.” I also wrote: “Is Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) an idea whose time has come or is it a huge cloak woven by big business to conceal the elephant in the room? “

Corporation as Victim

According to corporate researcher Joel Bakan, “Human psychopaths are notorious for their ability to use charm as a mask to hide their dangerously self-obsessed personalities.” For corporations, social responsibility may fulfill the same function as charm. “Through it, they can present themselves as compassionate and concerned about others when, in fact, they lack the ability to care about anyone or anything but themselves.” If Brandix were a person, it would seem to be feeling sorry for itself, adopting a victim guise while people go down with the virus. A spokesman chastised critics: “Arm chair critiques (sic), now let the authorities do what they have to do, while we the citizens while wearing a mask, be smart, sensible & supportive of people who need our support & help us get out of a situation which can be devastating on many levels!”

I do not have the resources to be an investigative journalist but I can analyse statements and balance one side against the other. Some might allege that the company was cutting corners and endangering the nation; Brandix would argue that they were trying to catch up with lost export orders to earn foreign exchange. “As an organisation, we rally together to care for the affected employees and their families, whilst endeavouring to minimise the impact on our communities and our nation in a collective effort to emerge from this crisis”.

FTZMA support Brandix’s victim status. “The Free Trade Zone Manufacturers Association (FTZMA) is of the view that Brandix being a member of our association is one of the best and leading apparel exporters. A proud Sri Lankan investment should not be victimised and maligned for spreading the virus at this juncture creating a public stigma. A similar situation could occur at any of our member enterprises in the country.”

Workers as Victims

Brandix Group Finance Director and Managing Director of the company’s Indian operations, Hasitha Premaratne told the Sri Lankan Daily Mirror … Brandix employees were being victimised. One of their buses carrying workers to another factory was stoned. Brandix teams were prevented from entering some villages when they went to offer relief to workers’ homes. There were reports of buses and three wheelers refusing to transport Brandix workers.

Blame the Public

Brandix also received support from former Sunday Leader journalist and Newsline TV presenter Faraz Shauketaly: “Ladies and Gentlemen. The covid19 issue has again captured not only the headlines but also the genuine concern and fear of the people of Sri Lanka. The immigration authorities have confirmed that the flights from India ferried Sri Lanka passport holders only. The fact of the matter is that all Sri Lanka has an attitude of complacency brought about by several weeks of literally leading the global pack with relatively low positive cases. Somewhere for whatever reason it would appear that Cv19 spread to the ranks of Brandix staff. It is too much to believe that the senior management and Board of BRANDIX gambled and forced contractors to carry on in spite of showing signs not conducive to CV19. Brandix is a Sri Lanka success story. It is easy to be critical but think of the positives this company has brought to the general wellbeing of our nation. Let us show some sympathy, some decorum and some understanding at this critical time for our nation as a whole. And learn from the collective laxity all around.”

In the UK, Boris Johnson recently suggested that the reason the virus was spiking was because “everybody got a bit, kind of complacent and blasé”. This is the man who was boasting about not wearing a mask when he visited NHS hospitals, who was proud of shaking hands with front line health care workers (one nurse who met him subsequently died of the virus), whose chief adviser blatantly flouted the rules that he had helped to formulate, whose housing minister twice flouted the guidelines.  Opposition leader Keir Starmer is now able to credibly accuse the prime minister of being complacent and blasé.

Faraz Shauketaly, uses weasel words to deflect attention away from Brandix. “learn from the collective laxity all around “; “all Sri Lanka has an attitude of complacency”; “Somewhere for whatever reason it would appear that Cv19 spread to the ranks of Brandix staff”. “It is too much to believe that the senior management and Board of BRANDIX gambled and forced contractors to carry on in spite of showing signs not conducive to CV19.”

Shauketaly has no new evidence to offer, merely the assertion that his well-heeled friends at Brandix could not possibly behave badly. This is rather like Boris Johnson blaming the British public for the spread of the virus in the UK and defending his cronies like Dido Harding. There had previously been little evidence of community spread anywhere in Sri Lanka. There is little doubt that this new cluster originated with Brandix. There may have been “collective laxity all around” but that was not the cause of this outbreak. Don’t blame the public, Faraz. The public won’t like that.

Swift Response

The government reacted swiftly to deal with this new development. Contact tracing has been prompter and more effective than the shambles we see in the UK. As I write, there is no general curfew but everybody is anxious. Food supplies seem to be getting short as people prepare for a possible national lockdown. Questions have been asked about Mattala Airport. Is it being used as a secret gateway? Is it putting Sri Lankan lives at risk and undermining the government’s success?

Obfuscation and Anxiety

Why did Brandix deny bringing workers from India and then admit to bringing Sri Lankan workers from India? The issue is not the nationality of the workers but the fact they were brought in and they appear to have brought the virus with them. Why were they brought in?

Why did Brandix issue the bold statement: “Brandix DOES NOT have the authority to operate a private aircraft in & out of India!” when it is well-known that Brandix CEO, Ashroff Omar, is on the board of directors of Sri Lankan Airlines and Brandix admitted on October 7,  “We operated three chartered flights from Visakhapatnam, India” and the aircraft chartered belonged to Sri Lankan Airlines.

If Brandix followed the recognised government protocols “under the supervision of the respective PHIs”, why does the PHIU deny participating? If the protocols were followed why if the virus still spreading? Some trade unions complained that Brandix had failed to follow the health guidelines and alleged that the employees of the Minuwangoda Brandix garment factory had been employed without proper health and safety measures. Labour Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva advised the unions to present a written complaint to the Labour Commissioner. The minister said companies were bound to follow the relevant safety and health protocols, gazetted by the Quarantine and Prevention of Diseases Ordinance. The Minister said, “If we find that the company has not followed the safety protocols, action can be taken against them according to the quarantine law.”