It was on a day last February that Padma, who had stitched clothes at India’s largest garment exporter in the city of Bengaluru for nearly a decade, decided enough was enough.
For the 35-year-old, who until recently made less than $145 per month at Shahi Exports pumping out items for Kohl’s and Tommy Hilfiger for eight hours a day, six days a week, the tirade of verbal abuse and humiliation from her supervisors wasn’t anything new. Expectations at Unit 20 ran high, with workers expected to whip up 100 pieces an hour to make up for lost orders during the first year of the pandemic, she told Sourcing Journal. (Shahi and labor campaigners disagree about many of the details of Padma’s account.)
Matters escalated after an especially bitter bout of invective, one that culminated in the HR manager physically strong-arming her into putting her thumbprint on resignation papers. A pair of security guards was called in to escort her off the premises.
Returning home that afternoon, Padma swallowed 60 pills, then called one of the leaders of the Garment Labour Union (GLU) saying she no longer wished to live and blaming Shahi management for “pushing her to death.” She was rushed to the hospital, where she remained unconscious for three days in intensive care, though Shahi cited medical records stating that Padma was conscious throughout her hospitalization.
Two of Padma’s colleagues, who didn’t wish to be named for fear of reprisal, corroborated her account. Workers who didn’t meet Shahi’s high production goals, they said, were berated as “donkeys” and “daughters of prostitutes” or accused of coming onto the production floor just to “pick their pubic hair.” Those who complained of the treatment, which is illegal under Indian labor law, were threatened with rape. One of them described her situation as “production torture.” Another said she saw upper-level managers kicking or hitting line supervisors, most of them male, for not running a tighter ship.
Garment factories were using gender-based violence and harassment as a disciplinary cudgel to speed up the work process even before Covid-19 reared its head, according to a report on the topic from the Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA), a nonprofit that campaigns for living wages in the garment industry. But the pandemic has only tightened the squeeze on an already highly competitive environment, meaning that the escalation of abuse experienced by mostly female workers from their predominantly male managers was “sadly predictable and inevitable,” it said.
Shahi ‘condemns’ harassment
Shahi Exports is a multimillion-dollar garment manufacturing Goliath in India, where it operates 50 facilities and three textile mills across 10 Indian states. It employs 100,000 workers, 80 percent of whom are based in Karnataka, where Bengaluru is the capital. Of them, 70 percent are women. Besides Kohl’s and Tommy Hilfiger parent PVH Corp., the company supplies apparel to Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle, Benetton, Columbia Sportswear, Gap Inc., H&M, Marks & Spencer, Uniqlo, Walmart and others. If a brand or retailer produces in India, chances are it uses Shahi.
Venkat Rao, the supplier’s chief compliance officer, told Sourcing Journal that Shahi is “fully compliant with the governing laws of the country in all spheres of its activities,” including labor and employment laws. Targets are calculated in a “completely scientific manner” that accounts for technical and personal breaks. The manufacturer also “outrightly condemns” any use of disparaging, sexually charged epithets, he said.
Rao added that workers are free to tap any of Shahi’s grievance mechanisms, including women welfare officers, HR representatives, brand-operated helplines and suggestion boxes, as well as an anonymous digital complaint platform, available through the use of any regular cellphone, known as Inache.
“There are elected worker-management committees, too, who are empowered to ensure that such aberrations do not happen, and if they do happen, they are redressed,” he said. “Every single social audit has physical interviews with randomly selected workers to understand their grievances, hear them out by brand auditors and third-party auditors. The stringency of these processes is robust and enforced.”
But Raju Chikkanarashaiya, the GLU organizer that Padma rang on the day she attempted suicide, said that most workers are afraid to use these “dysfunctional” channels because they fear backlash and that brands for the most part have proven unhelpful. And the few that do frequently find their complaints disappearing into the ether.
“In GLU’s experience, no brand-run or management-run grievance mechanism ever efficiently work,” he told Sourcing Journal. “Workers are worried about retaliation and targeting at work. App-based grievance [tools] also [have] the same issues and are not user-friendly. Workers are either not informed or have had terrible experiences with [the] internal complaints committee.”
Padma spent two weeks recovering in the hospital, after which she signed up with GLU, which represents nearly 800 workers across five Shahi units. The union fought to get her reinstated, which Shahi allowed after GLU pushed PVH Corp. to intervene. The manufacturer also transferred the HR manager that Padma tussled with to a different unit. Shahi said it paid for the garment worker’s hospital bills as well as one month’s wages.
Back at work, Padma wore her union membership like a bull’s eye, especially as she tried to organize others in her unit. (The two workers Sourcing Journal spoke to said their managers also bombarded them with questions about their union membership.) A female supervisor, Padma said, started picking on her. Shahi’s management, too, threatened Padma and her co-workers for associating with the union, she claimed.
Earlier last March, Padma tried to intervene when she saw her supervisor lashing out at a migrant worker who didn’t speak or understand the same language. When Padma reported the incident to an HR assistant, the supervisor approached her in a rage and a physical struggle ensued. In a clash over a pair of scissors, Padma said she hurt her forearm, requiring first aid. That evening, Shahi suspended Padma and her supervisor from work, albeit on half pay, citing misconduct on factory premises. Both of them have since filed police complaints against the other. The authorities, Rao said, are conducting their own investigation, and Shahi is awaiting the results.
Rao said Shahi subscribes to freedom of association with “policies to that effect.” A few of the manufacturers’ clients, he said, have signed IndustriALL Global Union’s global framework agreements, which are negotiated between trade unions and multinational companies.
“We believe that unions are an integral part of industrial democracy and there are laws governing their engagement,” he said. “All our factories have democratically elected worker-management committees, which handle any issues in a democratic and legitimate manner prescribed under law.”
Still, Padma’s experience is part of a broader pattern of union-busting activity and gender-based violence and harassment endemic at Shahi, Chikkanarashaiya said, noting that GLU has written to Shahi’s higher-ups numerous times about complaints from other workers about anti-union harassment or sexual harassment to no avail. Shahi has argued against recognizing GLU as a union because it does not have the required membership in the company. Chikkanarashaiya, on the other hand, said that GLU doesn’t need official approval to partake in “healthy dialogue.”
An article published last May in The Nation criticized Shahi’s alleged inability, through a Gap-backed, women-only program called Personal Advancement and Career Enhancement, or PACE, to address a “climate of fear where even a toilet break could result in public humiliation.” The story said that despite being about women’s empowerment, PACE has ignored or even seemed outright hostile to the workers’ concerns, making “little difference in their lives.”
A spokesperson for PVH Corp. told Sourcing Journal that it “takes these matters seriously and is continuing to engage with both the supplier and the union on this matter.” Kohl’s did not respond to a request for comment.
“We are continuously researching and finding ways to improve and strengthen our existing systems and policies while creating entirely new programs across various areas that impact the working lives of women including grievance redressal, health and wellbeing, leadership abilities and soft skills training among others,” Rao said.
By 2024, for instance, Shahi and Good Business Lab, through a program dubbed STITCH (Supervisors Transformation into Change Holders), plans to train 100 percent of its supervisors on topics that include gender sensitivity and improving workplace culture. Several of its factories also run BSR’s HERhealth, HERfinance, and HERrespect schemes that “strive to empower low-income women working in global supply chains,” he added.
‘Pattern’ of behavior
The dangers of gender-based violence and harassment were thrown into relief last year when Jeyasre Kathiravel, a 20-year-old worker who made clothes for H&M in the state of Tamil Nadu was raped and murdered by her supervisor. Her body was discovered near her family home after her shift at Natchi Apparels, a subsidiary of Eastman Exports, India’s fourth-largest garment export company.
After a year of labor-rights activists campaigning to obtain #JusticeforJeyasre, H&M, Eastman Exports, the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union, the AFWA and the Global Labor Justice–International Labor Rights Forum forged a binding agreement to end gender-based violence and harassment—the second such deal after one signed by Levi Strauss and others with a denim manufacturer in Lesotho. The organizations behind both agreements have said that they hope the contracts offer a template for addressing gender-based violence and harassment in the apparel supply chain, one that opts for worker-led interventions over the traditional top-down approach.
For Sebastian Devaraj, honorary president of the Karnataka Garment Workers Union (KOOGU), GLU’s conflict with Shahi triggers a sense of deja vu. This was “exactly the pattern” the supplier followed when KOOGU, who represents 215 workers in Shahi’s Unit 8, fought to bring its members’ concerns to the table, he said.
“They blame the workers, throw them out and see what the strength of the union or workers is to withstand it.”
Shahi’s recognition of KOOGU was hard-won, Devaraj said. As in Unit 20, workers in Unit 8 faced “very crude and violent” treatment from their managers. Employees who campaigned for better working conditions, including improved drinking water, higher wages and bus transportation were subjected to physical beatings, caste- and sexual-based verbal abuse, death threats and mass terminations.
It was only when the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), a Washington, D.C.-based labor-rights organization, intervened in 2018, publishing a report that detailed its investigation of the abuses, that Shahi agreed to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with KOOGU, dismiss a number of the offending managers and reinstate the fired workers, the union said.
Devaraj said that conditions at Unit 8 quickly improved, not least because the MOU gave KOOGU space for “legitimate open union activities.” Thanks to the efforts of female union leaders on the production floor, there has also been a “drastic reduction” in gender-based violence and harassment, and general attitudes toward women have greatly improved. Even anti-union behavior is less “in your face” and workers have been able to discuss union matters during their lunch hour, which was unheard of before, Devaraj said. Neither can workers now be fired without due process.
The managers of Unit 20 now engage regularly with the union. “This gives us some amount of say inside the factory,” he said. “If somebody misbehaves, some of these worker representatives will go and talk to the management and resolve the issue.” KOOGU has also raised its concerns with Shahi about its lack of dialogue with GLU.
Do brands deserve some blame?
Ben Hensler, general counsel at the WRC, isn’t surprised that union outreach to brands and retailers has largely proven ineffective. More often than not, brands and retailers tend to take a less than hands-on approach to worker issues at their suppliers until it blows up in the media.
“Before they’re held to external scrutiny, brands are quite consistently willing to take the word of factory management for what happens rather than conducting an independent inquiry that takes seriously worker accounts of what happened to them,” Hensler said.
“And you see that over and over again,” he added. “You saw that with the minimum-wage situation in Karnataka, where local factory management said the case is still tied up in court, even though there was a court ruling that the wage increase was payable; it’s not just freedom of association.”
The AFWA report said that the pandemic has “laid bare the structural inequalities within global fashion supply chains that are perpetuated and reinforced by the business models and purchasing practices of fashion brands.” In trying to boost their bottom lines through exploitative purchasing practices, it added, brands and retailers are perpetuating what it describes as the “garment industry trauma complex.”
Padma and workers like her just want to be heard but they say they feel voiceless. She said that Shahi has refused to speak to the union about her situation, saying it can only discuss matters with her or her husband.
“Who is going to listen to our complaints?” she asked. “Who is giving justice for us? This is the situation of the factory. We are asking for justice.”