The Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union (TTCU) has been at the forefront of several fights to restore justice to the exploited garment industry.

TTCU member protest Sumangali Scheme
Delve Gender Wednesday, November 17, 2021 - 11:20

On January 5, 2020, Jeyasre Kathrivel, a Dalit woman and garment worker in Tamil Nadu, was found dead. Jeyasre had complained to her family that she had been facing sexual harassment for months from a supervisor at Natchi Apparels in Kaithian Kottai, a factory owned by a company called Eastman Exports. It was later discovered that she had been abducted and murdered. There were allegations of sexual assault but her body had been in the rain for four days and had decomposed, so the post mortem results were inconclusive. In the months following Jeyasre’s death, her family alleged threats and intimidation from the company. They also told the media at the time of the death that despite Jesayre’s complaint to the management regarding the harassment, no action had been taken. 

Stories like Jeyasre’s, ones that involve abuse, violence and threats against Dalit women, are unrelenting and systemtic in the state’s garment industry. But a Dalit women-led independent union is now fighting to counter gender-based violence within the garment industry in Tamil Nadu, and is hoping to change that narrative for good. 

The Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union (TTCU) has been at the forefront of several fights to restore justice to the exploited garment industry and spinning mill labourers in the state. Whether it was exposing the use of illegal pills supposedly meant to control menstrual cramps or demanding accountability for the murder of 20-year-old Jeyasre Kathiravel, TTCU has played a critical role. Sustained agitation by TTCU led to compensation from the company to Jeyasare’s family. Their agitation sparked a campaign to end gender-based sexual harassment and violence in the garment industry, which also brought to light wide-spread abuse. Many women went on the record to describe their experiences. They spoke about the exploitative measures on factory floors such as inadeqaute breaks in a day for bathroom and drinking water access, verbal abuse, sexual harassment, gruellingly long shifts and more. 

Almost 60% of TTCU’s 11,000 strong members are Dalit women. The union only admits women, saying that a primary problem with other workers’ unions is that the leadership is almost entirely male, leaving little space for taking up issues of gendered violence.

Now, in what would be the first such agreement for India, TTCU is currently trying to get Eastman Exports and the global fashion brands that source from them, to sign a binding agreement to end gender-based harassment and violence in the garment factories. While the Lesotho agreement was the first of its kind in the world, if Eastman signs this agreement, India will be the second country in the world with a binding agreement to end gender-based harassment and violence (GBVH) in garment factories. The agreement is being viewed as a hopeful precedent within the country and also a means to help galvanise brand liability — that is, public pressure could increase on big, well-known fashion brands that buy from companies such as Eastman Exports. 

After prolonged limbo, the union hopes that the agreement will be signed before the first-year anniversary of Jeyasre's murder as "form of justice for her and other survivors of gender-based harassment and violence in garment factories," said Poongudi, treasurer of TTCU.

Regarding Jeyasre’s murder, “They thought that there will be no one to stand with a Dalit family. No political leader will support them. That their voices won’t be heard,” Jeeva, the general secretary of the union, told TNM. 

TTCU’s journey

TTCU was founded in 2013 with the help of activist James Victor. Jeeva had accompanied him to a conference in Istanbul after she’d been picked as a representative of garment workers in India. There, she was inspired by the many women-led workers’ movements highlighted at the conference. On her flight home, she reflected on how so many women her age had given presentations on their struggle for gender justice and how she herself had witnessed rampant abuse in the garment industry with little space for redressal. Eventually, with James Victor as adviser, TTCU was set up at the state-level. 

Thivya Rakini, state president of TTCU, explains, “We have a bottom-up approach and are community based. There is a village committee, then a district committee and a state committee. The village committee itself will have 15 to 20 members with five office bearers: the president, vice-president, general secretary, assistant secretary and treasurer. There are similar office bearers at the district and state levels too.” The village committees are the bedrock of the union, she adds, because TTCU addresses issues beyond those faced within the garment industry. It deals with problems faced within the village to the point that union members are heavily relied upon. Thivya also adds that this has helped TTCU members win panchayat postings.

TTCU has also fought many cases through paralegals within the union who conduct training at the village committee level. “From 2013 to 2021 we have filed 486 cases, many that have gone as far as the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT) and the High Court. Apart from cases that come before the High Court or the NCLT, we don’t hire lawyers. If negotiations with the company fail and the issue goes before the Assistant Commissioner for Labour (ACL), our paralegals take up the work of an advocate,” says Thivya.

Thivya also says that the union tries to maintain the anonymity of the complainant when raising issues with the factory or the mill. If an issue comes up, she says that the union directly deals with the company or the ACL or through legal means.

Illegal pills

In 2019, an expose by Thomas Reuters Foundation brought to light the use of illegal, unlabelled pills to control menstrual cramps amongst garment workers in Tamil Nadu. About a hundred women went on the record, and more than half were reported to have developed health issues. The women had taken the pills due to high-pressure deadlines and barely any means for rest without losing wages. The pills were later discovered to lead to a host of health issues including periods stopping for several months and infertility — a consequence unknown to the women who took the pills out of desperation.

Gomathi, vice-president of TTCU, says that there are many women in the town where she lives who have become infertile from these pills.

“I am one of the women affected by those pills,” says Jeeva. “If we need to use the bathroom frequently even to pass urine, the supervisor will scold us. Fearing that scolding, I’d control myself from going to the bathroom. This has caused medical issues for me. My legs became swollen from holding in urine for eight hours then. Even now, I can’t walk long distances. Because of the pills, for ten years now, I have not been able to have a child. I have to face problems from my family because of this. There are many other women in my town like me.”

TTCU, says Thivya, was the reason this expose could happen. Several members took risks trying to secure samples of the tablets for testing. “One girl, who tried to help us, was forced to swallow the pill in front of the supervisor.”

Labelled as ‘troublemakers’ 

Thivya says that TTCU is facing legal charges for “disturbing business” and the women are often viewed as troublemakers.  “Even for the women in leadership, their position isn’t rock solid. All that has to happen is their husband has to go to a tea shop. Someone will talk in his presence that the factory owner gives so much money for the village festival and this man’s wife goes around opposing him. Her husband will come home and shout that he is losing ‘respect’ outside because of her. After such scenes at home, some women stop attending union meetings.”

Gomathi says that local politicians instructed her husband to stop her from getting involved in Jeyasre’s case. “He told me to stop, saying why do you need to get involved in problems that have nothing to do with us. Despite that, Jeeva and I persisted.”

Jeeva says that without TTCU it would have been impossible to bring attention to Jeyasre’s murder. “She’s Dalit. They’d have just closed the case saying it’s some lover’s tiff, despite our involvement. Even NGOs that got involved in the case were asking if we knew ‘the nature of the relationship between Jeyasre and the supervisor’. Would they have dared to say that if she was from another community?”

This is not the only attempt to censor them, she says. Earlier when they’d attempted to fight a case of child labour in a factory, the owner took the issue all the way to the local MLA saying that she was “crossing limits." 

"The MLA supported me at that point, but our neighbours and other villagers told off my family," says Jeeva.

Thivya says that if a factory has a problem with TTCU, they complain to the landlords of their office building. The union has had to shift offices several times because of this.

The union says that they’re holding strong despite all the challenges that they face in the hope that workers who join the industry after them don’t face what they did. “We hope to see more changes. Bathroom timings have been extended, those pills have been stopped, to some extent workers receive more respect than they did earlier,” says Jeeva.

“Because of our agitations, bathrooms have been built closer to the site. Earlier they’d be about a kilometre away. It’d be nearly impossible to take bathroom breaks and come back on time. Changes are happening,” adds Thivya.

However, it remains to be seen if Eastman Exports will sign what will be a historic agreement regarding gender-based harassment and violence with the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union.

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