To her friends and family, 20-year-old Jeyasre Kathiravel confessed that she was being sexually harassed at her work – Natchi Apparel, an H&M supply factory in Kaithian Kottai, Tamil Nadu, India – by her direct supervisor.
On January 5th, her body was found.
It’s a story that women are all too familiar with: say something and risk the consequences. Being fired for someone else’s actions is unfair, but women have a fear that runs their lives – the same fear that Kathiravel had with her supervisor. And it’s surprisingly – or, to women, quite unsurprisingly – common.
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It was on January 1st that Kathiravel received a call from her supervisor, Thangadurai, saying he needed her to report to the factory immediately. When Kathiravel did not return home following the call, her family filed a missing person report the next day. On January 5th, her decomposed body was found in a nearby village’s wasteland – disposed of as if she were an object.
While he initially denied his involvement, Thangadurai eventually confessed to police that he had murdered Kathiravel. He had brought Kathiravel to his friend’s house, where he proceeded to rape, poison, and strangle her to death.
Kathiravel had reportedly discussed this sexual harassment months prior to her murder. Seven women reported witnessing her supervisor, Thangadurai, in the act. They also stated that she was not the only victim of his harassment – and Thangadurai was not the only manager doing the harassing. With 90% of the garment works being women, and 90% of the supervisors being men, the gender ratio offers inequality up on a silver platter.
25 women workers at @hm supplier Natchi Apparels have come forward to reveal a culture of gender-based violence and harassment at the factory after a 21 y old Dalit garment worker from the factory was murdered by her factory supervisor. 1/5https://t.co/RfbDZNBsvH
— Asia Floor Wage Alliance (@asia_floorwage) March 9, 2021
Kathiravel was a member of Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union (TTCU). Thivya Rakini, State President of TTCU, expressed disappointment in the companies’ handling of the sexual harassment. “The companies involved have put Jeyasre’s family and our leaders in further danger by their inaction. … It is time for H&M and other brands to do their part,” she said in a statement.
CAMPAIGNS // **Content warning: sexual violence & murder**
Today marks 3 months since the brutal rape & murder of 21-year old Jeyasre Kathiravel by her supervisor at Natchi Apparel, a @hm supplier.
Join today’s day of action #JusticeForJeyasrehttps://t.co/BZrX1WIxvR pic.twitter.com/6ponBq0eo6
— Stitched Up (@StitchedUpUK) April 1, 2021
In response to the murder, H&M has stated that they will begin an independent investigation into the case. They also sent condolences to Kathiravel’s family, saying to Sourcing Journal that “We are deeply saddened to hear about this tragic incident concerning a factory employee on her way home from work; our thoughts and condolences are with the victim’s family.”
They also stated that “We do not tolerate harassment of any kind, and suppliers that do not share these values cannot and will not be part of our supply chain. Our ongoing monitoring, including announced and unannounced audits as well as self-reporting by the supplier, had not raised any cases of harassment in the factory in question.”
However, Rakini counters that. “Many workers we have spoken to say they are facing the same problems but either don’t know how to report grievances against their supervisors or say they are afraid if they speak out they will face retaliation.”
Women workers have explained that they do not trust the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC), as there are no repercussions for the harassers. At the same time, women who do file complaints are demoted, fired, or targeted through further harassment and violence. Other workers said that they did not understand who the members of the ICC were or what the ICC did, leading to an education gap that has made women in Natchi Apparel vulnerable.
The Response to H&M
@hm always celebrating Women’sDay! But the spirit seems limited to the corporate world only.
Jeyasre Kathiravel, one of your factory workers was raped and killed in Jan. Why not this Women’s Day, do something about the gender based violence in such factories.
— Girl Next Door (@Rancy75630911) March 4, 2021
Anannya Bhattacharjee, the international coordinator at Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA) states that there is more that can be done than send condolences and assert that there is an ongoing investigation.
“We believe the continued sexual harassment that has been reported to us, followed by the rape and murder of Jeyasre Kathiravel, is a direct result of Eastman Exports [the owner of Natchi Apparel] and H&M’s failure to respond to the extreme and widespread conditions of gender-based violence and the ongoing violations of freedom of association facing workers in Natchi Apparel,” she said.
H&M’s failures to address widespread GBVH and intimidation after Kathiravel’s murder has put the family & other women working in its supply chain at risk. @hm must ensure GBVH is eradicated from Eastman Exports factories & across all its supply chains. https://t.co/mAtkHujBjp
— Global Labor Justice (GLJ-ILRF) (@GLJhub) February 1, 2021
Bhattacharjee also alleges that Eastman Exports “has repeatedly refused to engage TTCU on multiple reports of gender-based violence and harassment, and has chosen to maintain an internal complaints committee focused on repressing rather than exposing serious violations.”
H&M why after THREE MONTHS is there still no Enforceable Brand Agreement (EBA) on gender based violence between @hm Eastman Exports, and the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union (TTCU)?An agreement is vital to protect women workers at Natchi Apparel #justiceforJeyasre pic.twitter.com/WNhi7gFfn5
— AliceWilby (@AliceWilby) April 1, 2021
Jennifer Rosenbaum, executive director at the Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum (GLJ-ILRF), expresses that “Fashion brands [such as H&M] that contract with Eastman Exports advertise codes of conduct and sustainability programmes. Yet at the bottom of their supply chains is a pattern of harassed women workers.”
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Despite awareness being brought to the poor conditions female garment workers face, H&M does not have a history of action. A study produced by AFWA, GLJ-ILRF, and other partners reported on gender-based violence within H&M. However, there was little to no response from the chain.
TTCU and AFWA are advocating for an Enforceable Binding Agreement, which would create oversight of working conditions, workers’ safety, and complaint paths, among other standards. “Fashion brands are hiding behind so-called sustainability programs when they need binding agreements with organizations representing women workers to make sure they can defend their rights at work without retaliation,” said Rosenbaum.
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And life has not been made easier for the grieving family – 50 men showed up at the family’s village, attempting to enter Kathiravel’s family home and force the family to sign documents dismissing the case for 500,000 rupees. Eastman Exports wrote this off, saying they were merely offering financial support to the family and that “we understand that this outreach may have created the impression of us pressuring or influencing the deceased employee’s family.”
H&M announced that it would not end relationships with Natchi Apparel, as “The trade unions involved have explicitly asked us not to terminate the business relationship with the supplier in question, and instead actively work to strengthen the workplace safety.”
But this will not bring back Kathiravel, a fact her mother mourns.
“She was the first in our family to have the chance of having a life outside the garment factories,” Muthulakshmi Kathiravel said to The Guardian. “My daughter told me that she was being tortured at work. I do not want other people’s daughters to suffer the same fate.”
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Have you faced workplace harassment? What do you hope to see companies do to address this common issue? Let us know in the comments.
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