The epidemic of sexual violence in factories in India

In India, the death of a young worker in a factory for H&M was set up as the banner of the fight against the torture being suffered by an entire community.

Photo credit: Better work

In Dindigul, a small remote town in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the death of Jeyasre Kathiravel has sounded like an alarm bell. This seamstress from the local factory of Natchi Apparels, a subcontractor to H&M and other major fast fashion brands, was found dead on January 5, 2021 by farmers a few miles from her village. Thanks to her approximately 93 euros a month, the 20-year-old young woman provided her family with a steady income to live on. After the tragedy, the young woman’s supervisor, a man dubbed by Indian media, V Thangadurai, was arrested and is believed to be behind the murder. In the months leading up to Kathiravel’s death, her family members have continuously denounced the sexual harassment she had experienced from her supervisor. “She said this man was torturing her but she didn’t know what to do because she was so afraid of losing her job”the victim’s mother, Muthuakshmi Kathiravel, tells The Guardian.

Interviewed by the Guardian newspaper The Observer, workers at the Natchi Apparels factory claimed Thangadurai was acting as a sexual predator within the establishment. The fear of reprisals and of losing his job would have prevented the victim from exposing the actions of his superior, according to one of his colleagues.

Suppress menstruation to go faster

“Their fingerprints are on the clothes people wear in rich countries, but their suffering is silenced.” said Thivya Rakini, chairman of the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labor Union (TTCU), a local women-led union representing female factory workers. In the weeks following Kathiravel’s murder, several dozen female employees of the same warehouse spoke out, claiming that they too were harassed and assaulted at Natchi. This freedom of expression sounds like a revolution for the 3,000 factory workers who are now exposing the verbal and sexual violence related to the fast fashion sectors. This wave of harassment has also become almost systemic because of the desperation of these women who want to keep their jobs at all costs.

Thivya Rakini, chairman of the TTCU, in conversation with workers at the Natchi factory – Photo credit: The Guardian

“I’ve been in this industry for over 20 years and I’ve seen terrible things happen in these factories – rapes, suicides and even murders”, said researchers from the international workers’ rights group AFWA (Asia Floor Wage Alliance), a woman who works in a factory in India, making clothes for foreign, and especially British, brands. Some workers were reportedly even forced to take pills to delay their periods in order to meet production targets. Their male colleagues also allegedly used blackmail, forcing some to have sex in exchange for repairing their sewing machines. “We keep silent for fear of losing our job… The mental stress reached a breaking point – I almost felt suicidal”a woman who worked in a factory in Pakistan told AFWA.

Faced with the exposure of these abuses, the leaders of Natchi Apparels finally spoke out and opened up a possible space for dialogue. “We have listened very carefully to our female employees and we are going to make sure that no woman ever feels unsafe in our workplaces again,” said, for example, Subash Tiwari, director of Eastman Exports. The group has also denied that the young woman’s death took place in the enclosure of Natchi Apparels.

Several workers’ rights groups have urged to recall that the recent testimonies of abuse should not be associated with isolated cases, but rather with a reflection of the significant insecurity in these factories and the way in which this abuse has taken root in the production systems related to fast fashion. “We are facing an epidemic of gender-based violence in the global fashion industry, but because it affects poor women who work thousands of miles from home, it is not seen as the massive human rights scandal that she is”said Rola Abimourched, deputy director of investigations and gender equality at the WRC.

H&M’s response

After the numerous incidents at the Natchi Apparels factory, H&M has decided to cancel its orders. An initiative that sounds like bad news for these workers whose survival depends on their work. “If reporting workplace concerns leads to brands withdrawing orders, female employees must choose between sexual harassment and unemployment.”said Jennifer Rosenbaum of GLJ-ILRF. “Our goal and hope is that the agreement reached will contribute to lasting and viable change for the industry as a whole, beyond any single individual company”said the clothing giant, who has pledged to monitor the excesses associated with its activities on Indian soil.

Here are eight facts that will keep you away from fast fashion and brands like SHEIN, PLT or Boohoo.

June 9, 2022

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