For Smita, who makes clothes for brands such as C&A and JD Sports in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, verbal harassment is an incessant “feature” of her job.
“As production targets increase, the harassment increases,” she said. “Every day is stressful—supervisors call you ‘bitch,’ ‘moron,’ ‘idiot’ if you do not make your targets. We should learn to ignore it, but sometimes we are not able to and start to cry.”
More than 400 miles away in southwestern Karnataka, Sheeba, another garment worker, recounted how women are singled out for abuse.
“The verbal harassment is unbearable,” she said. “The supervisors are constantly yelling at us—this was the case before the pandemic and now. They treat male and female workers differently. The male workers are friends with the supervisors, who are all men. For a small mistake, the supervisor will yell at a woman worker. If a male worker fails to meet production targets for more than a week, they will only get a warning.”
Women are able to obtain more favorable conditions if they offer up their bodies to their male superiors, according to Suneeta, whose Tamil Nadu factory produces apparel for H&M.
“Women who provide sexual favors to managers and supervisors—including allowing them to touch their breasts, stomach, and hips or having sex—are rewarded,” she said. “They get away with lower production targets, can take more leave and are not subjected to verbal harassment.”
Smita, Sheeba and Suneeta’s stories are part of a larger mosaic of gender-based harassment and abuse (GBVH) that is endemic to India’s garment industry, said a new report by the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre and the Society for Labour and Development, which collected testimonies from 90 women in 31 factories across the garment-producing hubs of Haryana, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
The final picture, the organizations said, is one of potentially millions of female workers who are forced to witness or experience extreme forms of GBVH on a daily basis. The acts are often perpetrated by male supervisors who drive their female charges to achieve impossible production targets, they added.
India, the world’s fifth-largest garment and textile exporter, dispatched $29.8 billion in clothing and textiles, including handicrafts, between April to December 2021, a 34 percent year-over-year increase, according to trade data. It employs roughly 45 million garment workers, 60 percent of whom are women.
“The fashion industry’s unsustainable and irresponsible business model has created and sustained conditions for systemic and widespread abuse of female garment workers,” said Alysha Khambay, head of labor rights at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre. “It is shocking that every one of the 90 women we spoke with reported directly experiencing or witnessing gender-based violence and harassment in their factories.”
‘Unreasonable demands’ from brands
While garment workers reported unremitting GBVH before Covid-19 became a global threat, incidences of sexually charged bullying, discrimination and physical and verbal abuse spiked with every new crest of the pandemic. A dearth of safety precautions made the situation worse, they said. As their hours soared and wages fell, the atmosphere of exhaustion, desperation and fear on the production lines intensified.
The report doesn’t name factories. Instead, it points a finger at the more than a dozen Western brands and retailers that contracted them: American Eagle, Asda, C&A, Carrefour, H&M, JD Sports, Kohl’s, Levi Strauss, Marks & Spencer, Primark, Tesco and The North Face owner VF Corp. Forms of GBVH, it noted, are tied to the “unsustainable fashion model,” where brands maintain precarious relationships with suppliers, press them on prices, demand discounts, make last-minute changes to orders and impose unfair penalties.
When buyers do this, they contribute to a “culture of abuse with consequences for workers and their families which extend beyond the factory floor,” Khambay said. “Suppliers manage these unreasonable demands from the fashion brands by exploiting vulnerable garment workers, the majority of whom are women, and engaging in abusive practices [that] lower production costs. India’s gendered culture of impunity also sets the stage for sexual harassment and violence to thrive within garment factories.”
Women garment workers rarely report violence because they fear retaliation, which can result in further GBVH or the loss of their jobs, the report said. The women investigators spoke to said they worried about being subjected to the rumor mill or being blacklisted by the entire industry. Even when workers want to speak out, formal grievance mechanisms do not always exist, the report said, or if they do they are often ineffective.
“The Covid-19 pandemic only exacerbated this abuse as suppliers faced increasingly unstable relationships with fashion brands which canceled orders, delayed payments and squeezed suppliers even further to protect profits—all without any consideration for the workers whose daily lives they were affecting,” Khambay said. “The fashion industry’s prioritization of short-term profit, combined with inadequate government regulation and damaging patriarchal norms, has brought us to this point. It’s time for brands to be held legally accountable for the treatment of women workers who make their clothes and profits, and take urgent action to tackle GBVH in their supplier factories.”
All but Kohl’s replied to requests for comment. Those that responded said that GBVH goes against their codes of conduct and they would investigate any supplier where allegations arise.
Some, like Marks & Spencer, said they are in dialogue with the Asia Floor Wage Alliance and workers’ unions to discuss the findings. C&A said that a review of audits over the past three years did not reveal any of the described allegations and that it “refuse[s] to accept” the accusation that it sets unreasonable production targets. Levi’s said that it requires “rigorous, contextually appropriate” hiring and representation ratios of women in factory middle and top management. American Eagle added it was mindful that eliminating GBVH was a work in progress and “these are complex issues with no simple solutions.”
But a solution already exists, Asia Floor Wage Alliance et. al., said. Earlier this month, H&M signed a binding agreement with several workers’ rights groups, trade unions and Eastman Exports, one of India’s largest garment suppliers, to eradicate GBVH.
The agreement, which followed the rape and murder of a young garment worker named Jeyasre Kathiravel a year ago, includes GBVH training for workers, an independent grievance mechanism and addresses discrimination and violence based on gender, caste, and migration status. It’s anticipated to reach 5,000 workers in its first year.
In 2021, Levi’s was among a group of brands that signed a similar agreement—the first of its kind to tackle GBVH—in the southern African country of Lesotho. It was hailed as a game-changer not only because it held signatories legally liable but because the interventions were worker-led. Other companies need to follow suit, said Nandita Shivakumar, campaigns and communications coordinator at the Asia Floor Wage Alliance.
“Brands must uphold their responsibilities under international human-rights law to protect women workers from GBVH and other forms of exploitation by negotiating legally binding, enforceable agreements between brands, suppliers and trade unions that cover GBVH and freedom of association in the operations of their supplier factories,” she added.