Female workers at H&M supplier in India allege widespread sexual violence

Female workers at H&M supplier in India allege widespread sexual violence

Annie Kelly

·7-min read
<span>Photograph: Michaela Rehle/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Michaela Rehle/Reuters

Women in India making children’s clothes for H&M have spoken out about widespread sexual violence they claim to have faced at one of the company’s suppliers in India.

The allegations come just weeks after the body of Jeyasre Kathiravel, a 21-year-old Dalit garment worker, was found in a field close to her family home after she failed to return from her shift at the Natchi Apparels factory in Tamil Nadu.

Kathiravel’s supervisor has been charged with her murder. Her family and colleagues at the factory claim she was too afraid to report harassment they say she faced from her supervisor in the weeks before she died.

Since the killing, 25 women have made allegations to the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union (TTCU) of sexual assault, harassment and verbal abuse by male supervisors and managers at Natchi Apparels, owned by one of India’s largest garment manufacturers, Eastman Exports.

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.”

A year on from the start of the world’s biggest health crisis, we now face a human rights pandemic. Covid-19 has exposed the inequalities and fragilities of health and political systems and allowed authoritarian regimes to impose drastic curbs on rights and freedoms, using the virus as a pretext for restricting free speech and stifling dissent.

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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.

One worker said: “When we try to complain about inappropriate behaviour from our supervisors, the [senior] management also tells us this is how working conditions are in a garment factory and that our role is only to ‘come to the factory, finish our work, take our salary and leave’.”

One woman told the unions that the death of Kathiravel had scared other workers.

“We trust the company to provide a safe place – but instead all we face is harassment.”

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 Group is taking this situation incredibly seriously, and we recognise that we have responsibility to ensure workers are safe throughout our supply chain. This is an extremely sensitive situation, and we are working hard to take actions that are in the best interest of the workers at this factory and meet the expectations from the trade union and other stakeholders,” said David Sävman, head of global supply chain.

“The allegations put forward regarding this supplier factory and the conditions described by the workers are completely unacceptable.”

Human rights campaigners have said sexual violence is a hidden pandemic that potentially affects millions of women working in global fashion supply chains.

In 2018, a report by Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum (GLJ-ILRF) uncovered multiple cases of gender-based violence across H&M’s supply chains. The report concluded that current mechanisms put in place by H&M and other brands were not protecting garment workers from harassment.

“Gender-based violence and harassment is not unique to this one supplier or brand,” said Jennifer Rosenbaume, executive director at GLJ-ILRF.

“What is clear from the facts emerging as women workers at Natchi Apparels continue to come forward is that supplier-led training and grievance programmes are not enough without deep shifts in workplace patterns of power including enforceability by workers and their organisations.”

Women at Natchi Apparels also made a series of allegations about wider working conditions at the factory. According to payslips seen by the Guardian, they are paid about £80 a month.

“We have to hit targets and if we don’t we have to keep working until the order is done,” said one worker.

Others said they were not allowed to access drinking water or use the toilet except on a 15-minute lunch break. This has been strongly denied by Eastman, which said its workers were allowed to freely access the facilities at any time, and added that the factory had annual social audits.

“We maintain high standards of labour practice strictly complying with global industry standards,” a company statement said. “Several globally reputed social auditors from India and other parts of the world have conducted inspections for months before certifying our production units on factors attributing to social compliance.”

The company also said it had worked with a UK audit company, Impactt, to launch a telephone hotline for workers to report grievances.

A spokesperson for Impactt said, “Impactt has begun to work with Eastman on work including a grievance helpline. The line has received calls from workers reporting cases of verbal abuse and sexual harassment. Impactt has referred these cases to Eastman for resolution.”

H&M said that it remains a buyer at Eastman Exports while the investigation continues at the union’s requestIt 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.”

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