At least 25 women working for an Indian company that supplies children’s clothes for British retailer H&M have spoken out about widespread sexual violence they claim to have faced in the workplace, following the killing of a 21-year-old Dalit garment worker in Tamil Nadu.
The body of Jeyasre Kathiravel was found in a field close to her family home after she failed to return from her shift at the Natchi Apparels factory.
The women accused male supervisors and managers of Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union (TTCU) at Natchi Apparels, owned by one of India’s largest garment manufacturers, Eastman Exports, of sexual assault, harassment and verbal abuse.
Workers at Natchi Apparels making clothes for H&M and other brands, who spoke to the Guardian on condition of anonymity, claimed that female workers faced persistent sexual violence and verbal abuse in the workplace.
They described a working environment in which male supervisors wielded “total power” over the women beneath them. One said that “even married women are not safe. It is just that [abuse]and production targets. We are nothing more to the factory.”
Another said sexual violence had been going on for years. “It happens a lot on the night shift.”
The women said high production targets and a culture of verbal abuse as a means to make staff work faster had led to sexual harassment and assault becoming “normal”. The workers said they had to make about 1,000 items of clothing every day and that the pressure to meet targets was relentless.
“All the supervisors at the factory are men. Every day we are constantly verbally abused and they use sexual language and slurs against us,” said one. “This kind of behaviour is just part of the job. Everybody knows it. It is just part of factory life.”
Female workers also spoke of their fear of losing their jobs if they complained about conditions at the factory. Many of the women interviewed said they were the main breadwinners of the family, often supporting multiple children and relatives.
“If your supervisor says you must do something, you have to do it. But what can we do? There is no other work but the factory,” said one.
She claimed workers were either unaware or too scared to use the factory’s grievance reporting mechanisms.
Eastman Exports, which owns Natchi Apparels, has denied all allegations and said that the factory had robust mechanisms for the reporting of any grievances or harassment. As required by Indian law, it has an internal complaints commission in place at the factory to deal with claims of sexual harassment, as well as a grievance redressal committee and a workforce representatives committee.
It said it had received no complaints of sexual harassment linked to the Jeyasre Kathiravel case.
“We have zero tolerance for any negative employment practice. Both our factory management and supervisors extend fair treatment to all our workers at all levels,” said the company in a statement.
“We have got several grievance redressal mechanisms well functioning in our factory, through which grievances received if any are properly addressed and resolved. Workers’ redressal forums are very active and take up every single case. Counselling is also carried out by relevant professionals to our employees.”
Testimonies and audio recorded by unions describe similar allegations of sexual and verbal abuse, and a culture of fear that prevented women from officially reporting incidents.
Eastman Exports has denied that Kathiravel’s death is linked to the factory and pointed to police reports and an investigation by local NGO Save, which claim she was in a “love” relationship with the man charged with her murder.
After the murder, H&M said it had immediately launched an independent investigation into conditions and claims of sexual assault at Natchi Apparels. It said the investigation is working closely with members of the TTCU to ensure that the factory is a safe workplace for women.
H&M said that it remains a buyer at Eastman Exports while the investigation continues at the union’s request. It said the inquiry would examine any link between Jeyasre Kathiravel’s murder and alleged sexual violence at the factory.
“We fully support this investigation and any future relationship between H&M Group and this supplier will entirely depend on the results, and the factory management team taking necessary actions and guaranteeing a fully transparent line of communication going forward,” it said.
“All forms of abuse or harassment are against everything that H&M Group stands for.” (Source: The Guardian)