TW: Sexual and physical violence.
Beneath H&M’s chic exterior lies a shocking revelation of violence taking place in the company’s supply chain.
Earlier this year, Jeyasre Kathiravel was raped and murdered by her supervisor at an H&M supply factory in Tamil Nadu. She is one of many victims of gender-based violence and casteism in H&M’s supply chain.
On their website, H&M claims to feel responsible for the wellbeing of 1.6 million textile workers employed by their suppliers.“We want everyone to be treated with respect and work in a safe and healthy environment,” they claim.
But at just 20-years-old, Kathiravel’s life was cut short. Her body was found partially decomposed on farmland close to her home after being missing for 3 days.
Her supervisor at the factory eventually confessed to the crime.
Casteism in the workplace
This act of violence is layered because it also is a product of casteism in the workplace. Kathiravel was a Dalit (referring to the lowest caste in India), garment worker at Natchi Apparels, where she was allegedly harassed for months prior to her death.
Natchi Apparels is owned by a company called Eastman Exports, which is one of H&M’s largest suppliers.
“Her family and coworkers have told us that Kathiravel was being harassed at work but nothing was done,” said Thivya Rakini, state president of the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union (TTCU).
“She was the first in our family to have the chance of having a life outside the garment factories,” said Muthulakshmi Kathiravel, the victim’s mother.
But nothing was done about the harassment she experienced because Kathiravel was a woman who belonged to a lower class.
Dalit’s continue to experience discrimination, segregation, and violence in India. Although India's Constitution of 1947 protects all individuals with rights regardless of caste, members of the Dalit community remain stigmatized and looked down upon.
Her family said Kathiravel had been working at the H&M supplier to put herself through higher education.
“My daughter told me that she was being tortured at work. I do not want other people’s daughters to suffer the same fate,” said her mother.
Unfortunately, many women continue to be harassed at Natchi Apparels, and the work environment enables the harassment to take place.
An anonymous report filed to Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AWFA), reveals that 90 percent of supervisors at Natchi Apparels are men, who oversee 90 percent female garment workers.
It is a patriarchal power dynamic that makes it difficult for women to voice their concerns and receive justice for the harassment they are subject to.
In fact, a study conducted by the International Labour Organization in 2015 titled Insights into working conditions in India’s garment industry, interviewed and surveyed close to 500 garment workers in India.
Findings of the study reveal that a staggering 1 in 5 women have experienced sexual violence in the workplace.
At Natchi Apparels, “the gender ratio is very skewed in the factory. There are hardly any women supervisors and managers. Most workers, on the other hand, are young women and many are migrants, who are staying away from their families for the first time,” reads the anonymous statement.
“Many workers we have spoken to say they are facing the same problems but either don’t know how to report grievances against their supervisors or say they are afraid if they speak out they will face retaliation,” said Rakini.
Lack of security measures
Furthermore, Natchi Apparels has surveillance cameras installed on the premises, but none of them are located on the factory floor where the majority of harassment takes place. Thus, no evidence of abuse is ever recorded.
“They have no proper support system within the factory and have no access to prevention or grievance redressal mechanism for sexual harassment. They are scared to complain against the managers as they are girls from poor families. They worry that they will lose their jobs and will be unable to feed their families if they complain.”
After Kathiravel’s body was found, her family said they faced pressure to accept financial compensation and sign documents releasing the H&M supplier of any responsibility in her death.
On 29 January, the family claims that Eastman Exports “brought a mob of 50 men to their village who forced their way into their home and demanded that they accept a cheque for $8383.81 (500,000 rupees) and sign documents they had not read.”
Justice has not been served
However, no amount of money can compensate Kathiravel’s family for their loss, and justice appears to be a long time away.
The very police report filed about Kathiravel’s death continues to victimize her, and alleges that she was in a relationship with her supervisor and was forcing him to marry her, which resulted in her death.
Furthermore, it appears that H&M has no plans of terminating business with Eastman Exports.
In a statement, an H&M spokesperson stated “The trade unions involved have explicitly asked us not to terminate the business relationship with the supplier in question, and instead actively work to strengthen the workplace safety. We are therefore in close contact with the supplier and have set some immediate and urgent actions that we expect them to complete in order to demonstrate how they can guarantee a workplace free from harassment.”
What can you do to help?
When these types of situations arise, oftentimes it is difficult to feel motivated to make change. However, it is imperative to remember that change is always possible and we must work together to call out injustices around the globe.
Companies like H&M have a responsibility to their workers, regardless if they are employees in shopping malls or garment workers in India.
They all deserve to work in environments free of gender-based violence and casteism.
Currently, there is a petition circulating to help stop the abuse of H&M factory workers. Sign and share the petition to spread awareness.
About the author: Manisha is a freelance writer with experience on both radio and television, who is also the former titleholder of Miss Fiji Canada 2017. She is an artist, poet, and an SFU alumnus with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Communications. Manisha is the creator of the platform Bula Mental Health which is dedicated to bridging the gap between history, current events, and overall well-being. Check her out on Instagram: @exclusivelymanisha