Female employees have spoken out about the culture of sexual violence ingrained in H&M’s supply chain factory Natchi Apparels in Tamil Nadu, India. This news comes just weeks after a supervisor was charged for the murder of Jeyarse Kathiravel, a Natchi Apparels employee who was found dead on her way home from her shift.
Since the news of Kathiravel’s murder broke out, 25 women have reported claims of sexual assault, harassment and verbal abuse by male supervisors and managers of the factory to the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labor Union (TTUC). Despite these women having come forward, many other women, not only working at Natchi Apparels but also other garment factories, remain silent in fear of losing their jobs.
Several female workers, who were guaranteed anonymity, testified on their working conditions to The Guardian. They stated that “all the supervisors at the factory are men”, the women are constantly being subject to the abuse of their “total power”. Not only do these women have to face the immense pressure of meeting rigorous and extreme daily production targets, but the constant sexual harassment has reached the point where it has become normalized. A woman said, “This kind of behaviour is just part of the job. Everybody knows it. It is just part of factory life”. Another reports that “even married women are not safe”. One has also come out saying that the unacceptable behaviour has been going on for years, especially “on night shift”.
Terrified by Kathiravel’s murder, female garment workers have tried to receive support from their employer. Natchi Apparels’ owner Eastman Exports has denied all of the sexual harassment and violence allegations. They claim the factory has “several grievance redressal mechanisms well functioning in our factory, through which grievances received if any are properly addressed and resolved”.
The lack of attention and consideration from Eastman Exports has been rebuked by several female employees. “When we try to complain about inappropriate behaviour from our supervisors, the [senior] management also tells us this is how working conditions are in a garment factory and that our role is only to ‘come to the factory, finish our work, take our salary and leave”, an employee states.
Since the murder, H&M has launched a separate investigation on the working conditions at Natchi Apparel. David Sävman, head of the H&M global supply chain, stated “H&M Group is taking this situation incredibly seriously, and we recognise that we have [a] responsibility to ensure workers are safe throughout our supply chain. This is an extremely sensitive situation, and we are working hard to take actions that are in the best interest of the workers at this factory and meet the expectations from the trade union and other stakeholders”.
Gender-based violence though is not unique to this factory, nor India. HERproject, a non-profit organization focusing on inequalities in global supply chain factories, conducted a study on gender-based sexual harassment. The research found that 1 in 7 women garment workers has been raped and/or forced to commit sexual acts and 47% of women feel that sexual harassment is the number one issue at work. Though statistics still remain sparse due in part to the lack of reports from the companies themselves and women workers who are afraid to speak up.
Inhumane treatment experienced in garment factories comes as no secret. The fashion industry has been notorious for staying silent towards sexual harassment and assault claims. Global giants such as H&M should do better to ensure that factories within their supply chain are safe for all of their workers.
If you or someone you know has been the victim of sexual harassment or sexual assault, please do not hesitate to reach out to the following resources for support:
SupportLine: 01708 765200
Rape Crisis England and Wales: 0808 802 9999
RAINN: 800-656-HOPE (4673)
Victim Connect: 855-4-VICTIM