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Labour standards, human rights?



Stranded garment workers in Jordan

By Gomi Senadhira

(Specialist in Trade and Development Issues)

Recent news items about the tear gas attack by the Jordanian police on stranded Sri Lankan garment workers in Amman has once again turned the spotlight on the problems faced by the migrant garment workers in Jordan. Unfortunately, the United States and the European Union, the two main proponents of the use of trade policy instruments to uphold the basic labour standards and human rights continue to turn a blind eye to gross violation of the basic rights of these poor migrant garment workers working under conditions similar to those of indentured labourers.

The tear gas attack, last month, by the Jordanian police on Sri Lankan garment workers stuck in their overcrowded dorms without adequate food and water, thousands of miles away from their families and loved ones, illustrates the plight of the migrant garment workers in Jordan. According to the available reports, these workers along with migrant workers from several other Asian countries laid off by their employers with the onset of COVID 19, had remained unemployed for the last five months. Naturally, all of them want to go back to their countries immediately but are unable to do so due to the non-availability of flights.

In the case of Sri Lankan workers, three staff members from the embassy had visited a hostel attached to the garment factories to look into their welfare were held hostage by the workers for over five hours. During the five-hours period the hostages were even forced to eat the food the stranded workers have been eating for the past five months. Finally, the Jordanian police intervened to rescue the hostages had attacked the workers, and had even fired tear gas on them.


The Incident and Sri Lanka Bashing

by the Usual Suspects

This incident had triggered fresh round of Sri Lanka bashing by the usual suspects. “Migrant workers … looking to be repatriated to Sri Lanka were teargassed earlier today, as they stand a protest outside the Sri Lankan embassy in the country. Jordanian police reportedly intervened after an escalation between Sri Lankan Embassy authorities and protesters, with the workers fleeing after being tear-gassed” reported the “Tamil Guardian”.

Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice (Sri Lanka bashing business of Charu Lata Hogg et el) tried to hog the limelight by launching an email campaign against the government as illustrated in their post below;

To maximise the damage, these groups have also used websites like that of the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) for their campaign. The CCC in its blog on “How the Coronavirus affects garment workers in supply chains” tagged the Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA) Sri Lanka Coordinator’s discussion on the Globe Tamil’s Facebook page about the situation of Sri Lankan garment workers in Jordan. Quoting AFWP, the CCC also reported “Sri Lankan migrant (garment) workers …. in Jordan, have not been paid wages since April and are not receiving adequate food and water. When they tried to meet Sri Lankan embassy officials, workers were brutally beaten and tear-gassed…. over 20 workers have been hospitalised…. Meanwhile, … women’s rights groups in Sri Lanka and relatives of the stranded migrant workers are currently protesting in front of the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE) demanding urgent support for Sri Lankan garment workers in Jordan.”

These were deliberate attempt to defame the government of Sri Lanka as a government which is insensitive to the plight of the poor migrant garment workers. One cannot expect anything better from them. So, we can leave aside the issue of Sri Lanka bashing by these people. Even then, the question “why are Sri Lankan workers in Jordan going hungry?” is a valid one. It needs to be answered. Actually, we need an answer slightly more detailed question, that is;

“Why are stranded migrant garment workers in Jordan going hungry, not been paid wages, brutally beaten and tear-gassed?”

Before I try to do that, let me start with a true story of a migrant worker in the Middle East. Many years ago, when I was posted in Kuwait, my neighbour, a highly paid Filipino engineer, experienced a minor car accident. He had stopped at a traffic light when the car behind him took a little too long to stop and “bumped” his rear bumper. The driver admitted that he misjudged stopping distance. My neighbour requested that the Kuwaiti arrange to pay for the repairs as it was his fault. “No. It was your fault. This is my country. If you were not here, this accident wouldn’t have happened. So, it’s your fault.” the Kuwaiti said very firmly before he drove away into the sunset.

So, as our friendly Kuwaiti said, this teargas attack was the migrant garment workers’ fault. If they were not there this wouldn’t have happened. Actually, I too believe, they should have never been there. Or for that matter, there shouldn’t be a garment industry in Jordan in the first place, for them to be employed in. Jordan, after all, doesn’t have indigenous experience in garment manufacturing or trading, doesn’t grow cotton, or produce textiles. In Jordan, the female participation rate in labour force is very low (garment workforces are predominantly female) and the salaries are relatively high. In other words, Jordan doesn’t have any of those “factors of production” which provide a comparative advantage for her to develop a garment industry. Hence, Jordan is not a country that would usually attract investments from the global garment industry. Not even from those “fly-by-night” types. Yet, garment production has become a major component of Jordan’s export. How did they achieve that miracle?


The U.S.-Jordan Free Trade Agreement

(USJFTA) and the Sweatshops

The Jordanian garment industry is a creation of highly generous tariff and other concessions extended by the United States and the European Union and cheap migrant labour from South and Southeast Asia (countries which do not have such preferential tariff in the American market) working under conditions equivalent to those of indentured labourers

The American tariff concession to Jordan, through the United States – Jordan Free Trade Agreement (UJFTA), provide Jordan substantial tariff advantages in certain product categories over more competitive countries in South and Southeast Asia. When the agreement was signed, one of the main incentives for signing it was the possibility of reducing the high level of unemployment in Jordan, which was impacting on her economic, political, and social stability. Given the high female unemployment, the development of the garment industry was touted as an important means of realising that objective.

Though the Jordanian garment industry grew rapidly as a result of the FTA and reached all -important billion-dollar mark by 2006 it did not reduce the unemployment rate in the country as the Jordanian women were not willing to work in garment factories. The industry grew by employing a large migrant workforce (from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, China, India, or Nepal) who were working under conditions similar to those of indentured labourers. In May 2006, the National Labor Committee (NLC), an American advocacy group for workers’ rights, published a report exposing a series of labour rights and labour law violations in Jordanian garment factories, some of which were at the level of serious human rights abuses. These include, among others, compulsory work shifts that extended from 38 to even 72 hours, inhumane living conditions, beatings, torture, and even rape of young female workers by factory managers.

This report was given wide publicity by American media. “…dismal conditions — of 20-hour days, of not being paid for months and of being hit by supervisors and jailed when they complain…” reported The New York Times. The NLC report also published a list of major brands/ companies that were sourcing from the factories described in its report. It included Wal-Mart, Disney, Jones Apparel, K-Mart, Gloria Vanderbilt, Kohl’s, JC Penney, Liz Clairborne, Victoria’s Secret, Perry Ellis, and Mossimo. This had a devastating impact, particularly on the buyers.

The Jordanian Government was highly concerned about the possibility of losing market share or even the entire industry and acted rapidly to address the allegations. It admitted some weaknesses in the system and, with the assistance of the USAID commissioned a third party report to verify the NLC report. Apparently, his report while confirming many of the NLC’s allegations, had watered down the gravity of most of them. For example, the allegations about sexual harassment, the USAID funded report has stated “could not be confirmed”.

The International Labour Organization too continuously promoted the Jordanian garment industry with major international buyers through their promotional materials and business forums despite many credible reports about inhumane living conditions, beatings, torture, and even rape of young female workers.

To assist Jordan to improve the image of the garment industry, particularly in the eyes of the buyers, the International Labour Organization and the International Finance Corporation, with generous assistance from western donor agencies, set up a shop called, Better Work Jordan (BWJ). The BWJ produced a promotional video on Jordan’s garment industry (Jordan’s Garment Industry: Migrating to Better Work – ILO) painting a rosy picture of the industry. The video even shows an election in a factory to elect worker representatives and comments “it is the first democratic opportunity in which they (the workers) have participated.” In other words, they never had such opportunities in their own countries, namely, Sri Lanka, India, or Bangladesh. This ILO video fails to mention that these migrant workers are not allowed to be full members of the trade unions or whether Jordan has ratified the core ILO convention on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise! How can the ILO justify the application of such double standards, half-truths, and lies to promote the Jordanian garment industry? How can the ILO deliberately mislead buyers? More importantly, how can the ILO mislead these poor workers (particularly young vulnerable girls) with such claims, so that they migrate thousands of miles for “better jobs” and to go hungry, get teargassed, beaten up, and even get raped?


Forced labour and modern day slaves

Due to the seriousness of these allegations Jordan was also placed in the US forced labour list and the country report on Jordan confirmed; “Chinese, Bangladeshi, Indian, Sri Lankan, Nepali, and Indonesian men and women encounter conditions indicative of forced labor in a few of the Jordanian garment sector’s factories, including unlawful withholding of passports, delayed payment of wages, forced overtime, and, to a lesser extent, verbal and physical abuse.”

In August 2019, Bangkok based Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW), presented a research report on the working and living conditions for the migrant garment workers in Jordan. The conditions reported were not much different from what was reported in the National Labor Committee report in 2006. The report also claimed, “…in Jordan, woman migrants routinely face sexual harassment and physical assaults by male supervisors.” In an interview with a Bangladesh newspaper on the GAATW report, Bangladeshi workers’ rights activist Nazma Akter correctly summed up the situation in Jordan when she said, “(in) Jordan migrant workers were often treated as modern day slaves.”

Why do major global brands continue to source from Jordan?

Despite such reports, the Jordanian garment industry continues to thrive due to the availability of the preferential tariff in the United States and the European Union and easily manageable indentured workforce. Then, what about those lofty CSR standards of the major buyers. Why do they continue to buy from Jordan? That because the International Labour Organisation the necessary cover at the Annual Buyers’ Forums organised by the Better Work Jordan. Yes, in Jordan the ILO even organise annual business forums! These forums bring together major international buyers, as well as local and international garment sector stakeholders. At these meetings, the ILO- BWJ assures the buyers that the Jordan’s garment industry is a wonderful place for the workers. If not for the ILO’s continued assurances, most of the major international buyers would have walked out of Jordan many years ago.


BWJ’s unified contract

At the Annual Better Work Jordan Buyers’ Forum in 2015, a new unified contract for all migrant workers in Jordan’s garment sector designed by the ILO experts, was proudly unveiled in the presence of the Jordanian trade minister and the American Ambassador. By 2020 the migrant garment workers in Jordan should be covered by these contracts which requires the employer to provide return air ticket as well as with accommodation and meals until his/her travel proceedings are completed. Largely as a result of these measures Jordan was removed from the forced labor list in 2016.

Now, the factories have terminated some of these contracts, and the workers have not been paid wages for many months and they are held up in the hostels without adequate food and water, beaten and teargassed by the Jordanian police, doesn’t ILO- Better Work Jordan to has responsibility to intervene and assist these workers. These workers should be adequately compensated, provided safe accommodation, food, water and medical assistance until their travel proceedings are completed. The ILO and the IFC as the promoters of these contracts and the industry have a greater responsibility and (certainly) more resources than governments of the labour exporting countries to look after these workers’ welfare. After all, if not for them or the BWJ these workers would not have been there to go hungry and to be teargassed.

. The Government of Jordan also has a major responsibility. That certainly does not include brutal police actions. This is not the first time these workers were beaten and teargassed by the Jordanian police. The United States and the European Union have a responsibility to ensure that their attempts to link trade, labour and human rights policies are not mere rhetoric. The buyers also should demonstrate that there is no deviation between rhetoric and reality of what they call “corporate social responsibility” principles. Under the prevailing conditions, those countries and the organisations are in a position to provide assistance to these workers, more than the governments of Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh or Cambodia.

Then the organisations like the Clean Clothes Campaign should have a better fact-check and refrain from adding credibility to fake news circulated by Hogg and others. They should direct their appeals to the governments and the organizations which are responsible for the plight of these migrant workers. For example; the European Commission, the United States, the Jordanian government, the ILO, the leading international clothing brands and the large garment factories which employed these poor workers


Way forward

Finally, as and when supply chains restart fully, they should be radically restructured. Production should be taken to factories closer to where workers live. The supply chains should not be based on models that force workers to migrate thousands of miles away from their homes, that too after paying many thousand rupees, takas, renminbis or rials, to work as indentured labourers, to go hungry and get beaten. The trade instruments,like FTAs, should not be used to suppress human rights and labour rights of these poor workers.

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Sinharaja world heritage



Conservation Outlook Assessment: Significant Concern

By Professor Emeritus Nimal Gunatilleke

Continued from Yesterday


Water diverted from Ampanagala reservoir to Muruthawela will be used to meet the irrigation deficit of Muruthawela and Kirama Oya systems and the balance will be transferred to Chandrika Wewa, through existing LB canal of Muruthawela scheme up to 13.8 km and a new canal of 17.0 km. After that, the water requirement of Hambantota harbour is to be transferred to Ridiyagama tank through the Walawe river and Liyangasthota anicuit. However, due to the extreme length of the diversion through the three-river basins of Nilwala, Kirama Ara and Urubokka Oya, it will lead to a massive conveyance losses of the diverted water while on the way to the Walawe basin. Furthermore, enormous costs associated with its construction, a failure to fully realise the intended outcomes due to a shortage of water budget will simply be a burden that Sri Lanka cannot afford with her current economic condition, according to Eng. Prema Hettiarachchi. It may be worth recording that the water ingress into the grouted tunnel of the Uma Oya near Ella has still not been fully repaired, even though the Uma Oya project is nearing completion. An expensive lesson to be learnt on the nature of the weathered geological structure, lineaments and implementing its unexpected and costly mitigatory measures which will eventually to be paid back by this and future generations of tax payers of this country.

According to the Irrigation Department web site postings, Mahaweli Consultancy Bureau has initiated the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA), but due to the unavailability of concurrence of the Forest Department, revised TOR has not been issued by the CEA. Therefore, due to the unavailability of updated TOR, the EIA study has been delayed.

Environmentally, the most contentious issue highlighted in the news media is the proposed construction of a RCC dam at Madugeta to build a reservoir for which around 79 ha of forested (and some agricultural) lands in Sinharaja and a portion of prisine riverine forest in Dellawa would be inundated. On the Sinharaja side of the proposed Madugeta reservoir (right abutment) at present there are home gardens and small-scale tea plantations in addition to good riverine forests. In contrast however, proportionately a larger area of luxuriant forest of Dellawa, which is a part of the new ‘Sinharaja Rain Forest Complex’ would go under the chain saw for this reservoir construction (left abutment). The Geo-engineering report of May 2019 on GNDP has revised the siting of the dam to a more favourable location with supposedly reduced impacts but they forewarn that the three core-drilling along the proposed dam axis that had to be temporarily abandoned due to protests made by the villagers, need to be completed to confirm the geological suitability for the dam site.


Are there any Environment-Friendly Alternative Options?

As an alternative site for a dam on Gin Ganga, Eng. Nandasoma Atukorale (Specialist Engineer [Hydropower]) has proposed a location at the confluence of Mahadola with Gin Ganga at the village of Mederipitiya, way back in 2006. According to him, the riverbed at this site is 261 masl and have a catchment area of 132 km2. He proposes the construction of a 35 m high concrete gravity type dam that would form a reservoir with a storage capacity of 65 million cu.m and a potential discharge of 320 million cu.m of water annually which could divert 293 million cu. m of water to the SE Dry Zone. Most importantly, this region passes through a relatively narrow section of the river which is ideally suited for a dam according to him. However, geological suitability and socio-economic impacts of local communities need to be investigated, beforehand.

Quite interestingly, Eng. Athukorale claims that ‘although it is not economically very attractive, another 200 million cu.m of water could be diverted to the Nilwala basin by constructing a dam across Gin Ganga at the downstream of the confluence with Dellawa Dola at the village of Madugeta, with an 8000 m long tunnel which could be considered at a later stage provided further water shortages are experienced in the area’.


Now that the proposed Madugeta reservoir is receiving heavy criticisms from the environmental front, wonder whether Mederipitiya option proposed by Eng. Athukorale could be revisited for the diversion of Gin-Nilwala river water to the SE Dry Zone.

In a research paper titled ‘Comparison of Alternative Proposals for Domestic and Industrial Water Supply for Hambantota Industrial Development Zone’ Eng. Prema Hettiarachchi makes a comparison among three irrigation projects Kukule Ganga, Gin-Nilwala and Wey Ganga to convey water from the SW wet zone to SE dry zone.

She proposes yet another option that is probably still on the drawing boards to be considered which is the Wey Ganga diversion in Ratnapura District. According to her, this could meet the industrial and drinking water requirement (154 MCM + drinking water) of Hambantota metropolitan area at a significantly lower cost and with less damage to the environment. Further, there is a possibility of augmenting this scheme by diverting a part of Kalu Ganga catchment at a later stage.

Eng. Hettiarachchi further states that ‘by comparing the workload, it could be estimated to be nearly one third that of the Gin-Nilwala diversion. The Wey Ganga diversion can be carried out at a significantly lower cost by local agencies. That can also address the water scarcity of Hambantota metropolitan area including the requirements of international harbour and proposed industrial development zone with the relatively less environmental damage which is a major issue with respect to large scale projects. Construction period will also be less since the workload is less and can be carried out by the local agencies’.

What I have strived to show with this detailed irrigation engineering information available on public domain in the form of research publications, is that the Madugeta reservoir option is not the only one available for taking water from the wet zone rivers to the SE Dry Zone which is indeed a legitimate requirement for agricultural and industrial development of that region.

Pre-feasibility studies have been conducted on these options since 1968 and a considerable wealth of technical information is already available with the Irrigation Department. Apparently, according to knowledgeable irrigation engineers, there are more environmentally friendly, and cost-effective options with greater assurance of water conveyance to the SE Dry Zone available for consideration. It is often the case that during pre-feasibility studies of these large engineering projects, environmental concerns are given the least priority. Steady supply of water during extreme drought events which are becoming more frequent depends very much on the nature of the vegetation cover of the watershed area. These environmental aspects need to be critically evaluated before such costly projects are designed. As an example, although, the major engineering work of the Uma Oya project has been almost completed, its cost-effectiveness is yet to be seen with a denuded watershed, a potential of heavy soil erosion on top of the unexpected heavy expenditure on tunnel boring and other engineering works.

Biologically speaking, the Dellawa Forest Reserve is an integral part of Sinharaja Rain Forest Complex representing the pristine climax forest vegetation of SE wet lowlands and provide a vital connectivity link to adjoining Diyadawa forest of equal significance via the remains of Dombagoda forest. Therefore, clearing a riverine strip of this forest for the construction of Madugeta Reservoir would lead to an irreparable and irreplaceable damage to its characteristic riverine/flood plain forest vegetation.

On the other hand, pledging a reforestation initiative of a much larger area with Hevea rubber as a compensatory measure proposed by the political administration is totally unacceptable. Preserving intact forests in protected areas has no substitutes or replacements. Furthermore, the Natural Heritage Wilderness Area act and the binding articles of the UNESCO Convention on Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage to which Sri Lanka is a signatory, clearly state that causing direct or indirect damage to a natural heritage is legally not permissible.

In summary, the Sinharaja World Heritage Site is already in a state whose biological values are threatened and/or are showing signs of deterioration and significant additional conservation measures have been recommended to restore these values over the medium and long term. Adding more threats like the construction of reservoirs inside protected areas at this stage would inevitably downgrade the values further to a ‘critical conservation outlook’ which is not what the citizenry of Sri Lanka and the world at large would acknowledge as ‘sustainable development’.

The author of this article is a member of the National Sustainable Development Council of Sri Lanka and he thanks Dr Jagath Gunathilaka of Peradeniya University for providing the geotechnical information described herein. The author can be contacted at .)


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US seeking way out of Afghan killing field



As the Biden administration makes its initial moves to extricate the US’ remaining security forces personnel from Afghanistan, it would do well to ponder on former US President John F. Kennedy’s insightful comment on foreign policy: ‘Domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us.’ This is a rare nugget on the nature of foreign policy.

Considering the high costs, human and economic, a country could incur as a result of blundering on its foreign policy front, Kennedy could be said to have spoken for all countries. However, there is no denying that the comment is particularly applicable to expansionist powers or ‘hegemonic’ states.

Sensible opinion is likely to be of the view that the US decision on quitting Afghanistan should have come very much earlier; may be a couple of years after its bloody misadventure in the conflict and war-ridden country. Considering the terribly high human costs in particular the US’ 20 long years in Afghanistan have incurred, the US could be said to have committed one of its worst foreign policy blunders, overshadowing in severity the blood-letting incurred by the super power in Vietnam. However, in both theatres, the consequences for the US have been of unbearable magnitude.

The US death toll speaks for itself. At the time of writing more than 2,300 US security forces personnel have been killed and over 20,000 injured in Afghanistan. Reports indicate that over 450 Britons have died in the same quagmire along with hundreds of similar personnel from numerous other nationalities. Apparently, it took an exceptionally long period of time for the US to realize that Afghanistan for it was a lost cause.

The lesson that the US and other expansionist powers ought to come to grips with is that it would not be an ‘easy ride’ for them in the complex conflict and war zones of the South. The ground realities in these theatres are of mind-boggling complexity and Afghanistan drives this point home with notable harshness. Power projection in South-west Asia and persistence with its ‘war on terror’ were among the apparent prime objectives of the US in Afghanistan as well as in Iraq but what the US did not evidently take into consideration before these military involvements were the internal political realities of these countries that are not at all amenable to simplistic analyses and policy prescriptions.

The Soviets ought to have come to grips with some features of the treacherous political terrain presented by Afghanistan in the late eighties but their principal preoccupations were related more to the compulsions of the Cold War. Simply put, the Soviets were bent on preserving the ‘satellite’ status of Afghanistan and their war effort was aimed at this in the main. Preparing Afghanistan for democracy was not even least among the Soviet Union’s concerns, of course.

However, the same does not apply to the US. The latter helped the Mujaheddin in the task of getting rid of the Soviet presence in Afghanistan but its aim was also to have a US-friendly regime in Kabul that would be a veritable bridgehead of US power and influence in the region on a continuous basis. In other words, the US expected the regime which replaced the Soviets to be pro-Western and essentially democracy-friendly. The US did not in any way bargain to have in Afghanistan Islamic fundamentalist regimes whose political philosophies were the anti-thesis of democracy as perceived in the US and practised by it.

However, the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime which eventually came to power in the mid-nineties in Afghanistan, once the Soviets withdrew, defied all Western expectations. As is known, the Taliban was not only repressive and undemocratic but was staunchly opposed to everything Western. There were no hopes of the Taliban working towards Western interests. Besides, the US did not expect to see in Afghanistan a country dangerously divided on ethnic, tribal and religious lines. The problems of Afghanistan have been compounded over the years by the coming together of the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda and these groups have world wide Islamic fundamentalist links.

It has been the aim of the US to have in Kabul religiously moderate, pro-democratic regimes but as developments have proved over the past few decades these administrations have not been in a position to hold out against the Taliban. In fact, it is the Taliban that is veritably at the helm of power in Afghanistan currently and years of futile attempts at trying to contain the Taliban have brought home to the US and its allies that they have no choice but to talk to the Taliban in order to secure some respite to effect ‘an honourable exit’ from the bloodied land. This is where matters stand at present.

However, as pointed out by commentators, it is the Afghan civilian population that has suffered most in the decades-long blood-letting in the country. Conservative estimates put the number of Afghan security forces personnel killed in Afghanistan at around 60,000 to date and the number of civilians killed at double that figure.

Accordingly, the Afghan people would be left to face an uncertain and highly risk-riddled future when the last of the US security forces personnel and their allies leave Afghanistan in September this year. The country would be left to its own devices and considering that the Taliban will likely be the dominant formation in the country and not its legitimate government, the lot of Afghan civilians is bound to be heart-rending.

There is plenty to ponder on for the US and other democratic countries in the agonies of Afghanistan. One lesson that offers itself is that not all countries of the South are ‘ready for democracy’. This applies to very many countries of the South that already claim to be democracies in the Western sense. Southern ‘democratic’ polities defy easy analysis and categorization in consideration of the multitude of identity markers they present along with the legitimacy that they have achieved in the eyes of their states and populations. What we have are dangerously volatile states riddled with contradictions. Relating to them will prove to be highly problematic for the rest of the world.

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The Soul



The Soul (also known as Ji hun) is based on the sci-fi novel ‘Soul Transfer’, written by Jiang Bo in 2012. The novel was widely popular and inspired director Cheng Wei-Hao to adapt the tale into a movie. The story is about a married couple who are determined to uncover the truth behind strange activities in their community. According to the official synopsis for the film from Netflix, while investigating the death of a businessman, a prosecutor and his wife uncover occult secrets as they face their own life-and-death dilemma. The film stars Chang Chen, Janine Chang and Christopher Lee among others.

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