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Following Garment Worker’s Murder, H&M Pledges Investigation. But Will It be Enough?

H&M announced Tuesday that it will be investigating reports of sexual harassment at a supplier factory in southern India following the death of a young garment worker who was allegedly raped and murdered by her supervisor.

Before her body was discovered near her home on Jan. 5, 20-year-old Jeyasre Kathiravel had told friends and co-workers that her supervisor had been sexually harassing her for months. Several other women have also come forward to say the man, who has since been arrested on suspicion of murder, had a record of intimidating and abusing women at the factory.

“We are deeply saddened to hear about this tragic incident concerning a factory employee on her way home from work; our thoughts and condolences are with the victim’s family,” a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal. “We do not tolerate harassment of any kind, and suppliers that do not share these values cannot and will not be part of our supply chain.”

The retail giant said trade unions involved have explicitly asked H&M not to terminate business relationships with Natchi Apparels, which is owned by Eastman Exports, India’s fourth-largest garment export company, but instead actively work to strengthen 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,” the spokesperson said. “We will also, in collaboration with other brands, and in line with the trade unions’ wish, initiate an independent third-party investigation regarding incidents related to harassment.”

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Any future relationship with Natchi Apparels, the spokesperson added, will “entirely depend on the result of that investigation as well as the factory management team taking necessary actions within a set timeline and guaranteeing a fully transparent line of communication going forward.”

H&M said it has also “made it clear” to Natchi Apparels and Eastman Exports that Kathiravel’s family must be compensated “according to the law” and without requiring confidentiality or non-disclosure as a condition of compensation after a group of 50 men from Eastman Exports reportedly invaded the home of Kathiravel’s family over the weekend to coerce her mother into signing documents absolving the company of responsibility in the death.

“We stressed that no one, including the supplier, should under any circumstances coerce or pressure the family in any matter,” the spokesperson said. “We have now also explicitly demanded that the factory management team refrain from contacting the family without engagement with the unions or H&M Group.”

But labor activists want H&M to go further.

Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union (TTCU), which counted Kathiravel as a member, said Monday that it wants a “sit down” with H&M, other brands and Eastman Exports to negotiate a legally binding, enforceable agreement that covers monitoring, remediation and prevention of gender-based violence and barriers to freedom of association across all of the manufacturer’s subsidiaries.

“Eastman Exports’ Natchi unit has repeatedly refused to engage TTCU on multiple reports of gender-based violence and harassment, and has chosen to maintain an internal complaints committee focused on repressing rather than exposing serious violations,” Anannya Bhattacharjee, international coordinator of Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA), a regional organization that has been working with TTCU on the case, said in a statement. “This case shows the lengths to which corporations profiting from global supply chains will go to avoid responsibility. But in the end, women workers will stand up and fight back, and women around the world must stand with them for real solutions.”

In 2018, H&M came under fire after AFWA, the Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum (GLJ-ILRF) and others released a study detailing a pattern of sexual harassment and verbal and physical abuse experienced by the women who make their clothes in Asia. Though the retailer had pledged at the time to review the accounts and follow up with the local teams in each production country, labor groups said the findings “have yet to result in any significant response” from the brand.

“Fashion brands are hiding behind so-called sustainability programs when they need binding agreements with organizations representing women workers to make sure they can defend their rights at work without retaliation,” said Jennifer Rosenbaum, executive director of GLJ-ILRF, one of the labor organizations supporting Kathiravel’s case. “Brands should not be able to avoid responsibility for sexual harassment and violence by crossing borders.”

Tamil Nadu, whose 2,000-plus mills and 280,000 workers create yarns and fabrics earmarked for the U.S. and European markets, has often come under scrutiny for labor rights abuses, including sexual violence and bonded labor.

A recent study by grassroots initiative Fashion Revolution found that while 46 out of 62 major brands and retailers with reported links to companies in the state are divulging their Tier 1 manufacturers, few are disclosing or even mapping suppliers further upstream, where human-rights violations often lurk without corporate or regulatory oversight.

“When you start to look further down the supply chain where fabrics are knitted or woven, textiles are treated and laundered, yarns are spun and dyed, fibers are sorted and processed and raw materials are grown and picked—what the industry commonly refers to as Tiers 2, 3, 4 and 5—there remains a widespread lack of transparency,” the report’s authors wrote. “In fact, there seems to be a broad absence of investigation and supply-chain mapping beyond the first tier.”