The family of a young garment worker at an H&M supplier factory in Tamil Nadu who was allegedly killed by her supervisor said she had suffered months of sexual harassment and intimidation on the factory floor in the months before her death, but he felt powerless to prevent abuse. to continue.
H&M said it is launching an independent investigation into the murder of Jeyasre Kathiravel, a 20-year-old Dalit garment worker at a supplier to H&M Natchi Apparels in Kaithian Kottai, Tamil Nadu, who was found dead on January 5 on farmland. near your house.
According to police reports, a man who worked as a supervisor at Natchi Apparels confessed and was charged with his kidnapping and murder. Her family allege that she was also raped and are awaiting the result of a forensic report.
The family and a local union representing the Natchi Apparels workers claim that Kathiravel had tried to report the harassment and intimidation she was experiencing at work, but no action was taken. They also allege that gender-based violence in the factory was widespread.
“Her family and coworkers have told us that Jeyasre was being harassed at work, but nothing was done,” said Thivya Rakini, state president of the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labor Union (TTCU), which represents women who They work at Natchi Apparels.
“Many workers we have spoken to say they face the same issues, but they don’t know how to report complaints against their supervisors or they say they are afraid of retaliation if they speak up.”
The factory is owned by Eastman Exports, India’s fourth largest apparel exporting company, which is a large supplier to H&M and other Western brands.
Kathiravel had worked at the H&M supplier for more than two years in order to pursue higher education, her family said.
“She was the first in our family to have the opportunity to have a life outside of the garment factories,” said Muthulakshmi Kathiravel, the victim’s mother. “My daughter told me that she was being tortured at work. I don’t want other people’s daughters to suffer the same fate ”.
H&M said it has zero tolerance for gender-based violence in its supply chains. It said it is launching an independent third-party investigation into alleged harassment incidents at Eastman Exports and is working to improve worker safety at its factories in Tamil Nadu.
But international labor rights groups Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA) and Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum (GLJ-ILRF) claim that H & M’s apparent failure to enforce its own codes of conduct on gender-based violence or to ensure that it was a “responsible process” after Kathiravel’s murder had put the family and other women working in its supply chain at risk.
“We believe that the ongoing sexual harassment reported to us, followed by the rape and murder of Jeyasre Kathiravel, is a direct result of Eastman Exports and H & M’s inability to respond to the extreme and widespread conditions of gender-based violence and violations of freedom of association faced by Natchi Apparel workers, ”said Anannya Bhattacharjee, AFWA’s international coordinator.
The groups also accuse H&M of not having intervene appropriately to stop the alleged intimidation of Kathiravel’s bereaved family by Eastman Exports managers in the weeks following her death.
After their daughter’s body was found, the family say they faced increasing pressure to accept financial compensation and sign documents releasing the H&M supplier from any responsibility for Kathiravel’s death. There is no indication that H&M was aware of or was part of this.
On January 29, the family claims that Eastman Exports managers led a crowd of 50 men into their village who broke into their home and demanded that they accept a check for £ 5,000 (500,000 rupees) and sign documents that they had not read.
In the videos seen by The Guardian of the incident, Kathiravel’s family and the women of the TTCU, the union that supports local garment workers, can be seen surrounded by a large crowd of men yelling at them to sign papers. . Kathiravel’s mother, Muthuakshmi Kathirvel, was taken to the hospital after the incident and said it had left her in fear for her life.
“I did not want to sign documents but they forced me to do it, threatening me and my family.”
He said he wanted an investigation into the lack of protection for his daughter from sexual harassment and for the TTCU union to be allowed to enter into negotiations to speak on behalf of the workers.
In a statement, Eastman Exports said the intention of the visit to the family home had been to provide financial support to the victim’s mother “at this difficult time.”
“We understand that this approach may have created the impression that we are pressuring or influencing the family of the deceased employee. We have instructed all of our administrative staff and people representing Eastman to put any contact on hold for now. “
Eastman Exports also said it had zero tolerance for gender-based violence and that there were credible internal reporting procedures in place at its factories. He said the factory had received no reports of harassment from Kathiravel and that an investigation by a local NGO had concluded that Kathiravel and the man accused of her murder were “deeply in love” and that the family did not hold the factory responsible for her death. . .
International labor groups said that H&M must use its power as a foreign buyer to ensure that any gender-based violence is eradicated from Eastman Exports factories and throughout its supply chains.
“Fashion brands [such as H&M] that contract with Eastman Exports announce codes of conduct and sustainability programs. However, at the bottom of their supply chains there is a pattern of harassed workers and a grieving mother encountered a mob, ”said Jennifer Rosenbaum, executive director of GLJ-ILRF.
Rosenbaum said that in 2018 a GLJ-ILRF report uncovered multiple cases of gender-based violence in H & M’s supply chains, but that the findings did not result in a meaningful response from the brand.
In a statement, an H&M spokesperson sent his condolences to the family, saying: “The unions involved have explicitly asked us not to end the business relationship with the supplier in question and to work actively to strengthen workplace safety. Therefore, we are in close contact with the supplier and have established some immediate and urgent actions that we hope they will complete to demonstrate how they can ensure a workplace free from harassment. “
He said any future relationship with Eastman Exports would depend on the result of an independent third party investigation.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism