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What H&M Is Doing About Sexual Violence Against India’s Garment Workers

H&M signed on Friday a landmark agreement to end gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) at one of India’s largest garment suppliers following a year-long campaign to obtain justice for a young Dalit woman who was raped and murdered by her supervisor in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.

Jeyasre Kathiravel, just 20, had complained of multiple incidences of sexual harassment from the perpetrator before her death in January 2021. Her body was found near her family home after she had wrapped up her shift at Natchi Apparels, a subsidiary of Eastman Exports, India’s fourth-largest garment export company.

In the immediate aftermath, other women came forward to accuse the same man of intimidating and abusing them on the production floor. And when the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) conducted an investigation the same year, it too uncovered what it described as “widespread” GBVH at Natchi Apparel. The Washington, D.C.-based think tank plans to publish the results in a few weeks after agreeing to wait until H&M, Eastman Exports and other labor-rights groups could reach a resolution.

The Dindigul Agreement to Eliminate Gender-Based Violence and Harassment, whose signatories include H&M, Eastman Exports, the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union (TTCU), the Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA) and the Global Labor Justice–International Labor Rights Forum (GLJ-ILRF) distinguishes itself because of its binding nature. It’s only the second such agreement in an industry where GBVH, already ubiquitous, has taken a turn for the worse since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

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Under the terms of the agreement, stakeholders have pledged to work together in their respective roles to eliminate discrimination based on gender, caste or migration status; to boost transparency; and to nurture a culture of mutual respect within factory walls. The accord expects to reach 5,000 mostly female workers in spinning mills and cut-and-sew facilities across Tirupur, better known as India’s knitwear capital, in its first year. Tirupur employs 280,000 workers in all.

“All our employees deserve safety and respect at work,” said Subhash Tiwari, CEO of Eastman Exports, which will be amending its internal policies to bolster its internal complaints committee, as well as establish a grievance mechanism overseen by third-party experts. “It is our hope that this unique agreement and partnership will not only positively impact Natchi’s valued workforce but will also serve as a model for other garment factories.”

The agreement also implements the Asia Floor Wage Alliance’s “Safe Circles” approach to addressing GBVH, including regular training for workers, supervisors and managers; a peer education program; and shop floor monitors to identify and flag issues along production lines. The program will be underpinned by TTCU, a women-led independent and majority Dalit trade union of textile workers, with the AFWA and GLJ-ILRF providing additional support.

“This agreement delivers power and support to women workers to monitor, prevent and remediate GBVH collectively and with management,” said Jeeva M., general secretary of TTCU. “We will use this as a model to organize against GBVH and caste-based discrimination industry-wide.”

Anannya Bhattacharjee, international coordinator at the AFWA, praised the TTCU leadership for the “historic” agreement, which she said can serve as a model of collaboration for brands, suppliers and trade unions. “We are happy to be partnering with H&M and Eastman Exports in the implementation of this agreement, which offers a multi-faceted approach to achieving violence-free workplaces,” she said.

Jennifer (JJ) Rosenbaum, executive director of GLJ-ILRF, further urged all brands to join this model or sign similar agreements. “This agreement is a model for the role brands, suppliers, and labor partners have in eliminating gender-based violence from supply chains and promoting freedom of association,” she said. “Brands play a critical role by using commercial relationships and business leverage to reduce the existing risk of GBVH, incentivizing suppliers to comply with remediation.”

An H&M spokesperson told Sourcing Journal that it stopped placing orders with all of Eastman’s units, including Natchi Apparels a few months ago, “in line with our normal due diligence routines,” but that it remains committed to “being part of a solution” for improving worker conditions.

“Jeyasre Kathirave’s death was a tragedy, and our thoughts remain with her family,” the Swedish retailer said. “H&M wants to do our utmost to contribute to systemic and positive change in the industry and have therefore signed an agreement to work together with industry stakeholders to address, prevent and remedy gender-based violence and sexual harassment. We expect this agreement to contribute to a broader industry-wide initiative going forward. Every worker should feel safe working in our industry, whether they are employed by our suppliers or not.”

Levi Strauss, The Children’s Place and Wrangler owner Kontoor Brands signed a similar agreement with Nien Hsing Textile Co. and several human and women’s rights organizations in Lesotho in 2019 after a WRC investigation uncovered rampant GBVH at three denim factories in the southern African country. The Lesotho Agreement was heralded as a game-changer, not only because it held its signatories legally liable, but because it eschewed traditional top-down approaches for a worker-led intervention.

“These breakthrough agreements set an example for the rest of the apparel industry on how to address harassment and abuse in apparel supply chains,” Rola Abimourched, senior program director at the WRC, said at the time. “The parties worked together to develop a series of binding agreements between Nien Hsing, its brand customers, and unions and women’s organizations, that guarantee protection for workers and punishment for harassers. Hopefully this is something others will see and build on, so we can collectively make an impact far beyond any single country.”