H&M signs historic agreement with TN supplier to end gender violence in garment factories

The agreement comes over a year after the rape and murder of TTCU member Jeyesre Kathiravel, a Dalit woman and an employee of Natchi Apparels, by a supervisor in the same factory.
TTCU members protest
TTCU members protest

Fast-fashion brand H&M and its Tamil Nadu-based supplier Eastman Exports Global Clothing Private Limited, co-signed a legally-binding agreement to end gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH). The agreement — which is the first of its kind in Asia in the garment industry — has been signed with Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union (TTCU), an independent Dalit women-led union, Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA), and Global Labour Justice - International Labour Rights Forum (GLJ-ILRF). The agreement covers Natchi Apparels complex in Dindigul, owned by Eastman Exports, which includes four garment units, two spinning mills and a printing unit, all of which are covered by the new agreement. The agreement comes over a year after the rape and murder of TTCU member Jeyesre Kathiravel, a Dalit woman and an employee of Natchi Apparels, by a supervisor in the same factory. Following the murder, it was TTCU, in partnership with AFWA, who led the fight to both, bring justice for Jeyesere’s family, and the campaign for such an agreement to be signed.

The Dindigul Agreement to Eliminate GBVH is the second legally-binding agreement in Asia to hold brands liable in the garment industry, but the first in terms of sexual harrasment and violence. The first legally-binding agreement was the fire and safety Rana Plaza Accord, signed after the disastrous fire in the Rana Plaza Complex of Savar, Bangladesh that killed 1,134 workers in 2013. The agreement as of 2018, included over 200 brands, including H&M, Uniqlo and Inditex, which together source from more than 1,600 of Bangladesh’s factories.

The present agreement puts in place several fail safes. First, there will be shop-floor monitors, elected and trained by TTCU, to whom anonymous complaints of harassment (physical and verbal) can be made. Secondly, gender-based violence training will be given to all staff members of the factory including workers, supervisors, management and Internal Committee members. The training will be based on AFWA’s Safe Circle model, that has been constructed based on ten years of experience in organising for workers’ rights. The Safe Circle model, AFWA says, is designed to bring in behavioural change in production lines by creating engagement between various groups (“victims”, “perpetrators” and “bystanders”) and involving the entire workplace. Not only does the agreement allow for termination or suspension from employment of anyone found to have inflicted GBVH on the women employees, Nandita, Campaigns and Communications Coordinator, AFWA, says that the supplier (Eastman) will be in danger of losing orders, if they are found to be in violation of the agreement. “Now, it is in the company’s interest to ensure that cases of GBVH does not occur and if it does, immediate steps to redress the situation are taken.”  

This agreement is also the second such in the world in the garment industry (the first is the Lesotho Agreement). TTCU and AFWA view it as a win for both gender and caste justice. “A majority of factory workers are women and from Dalit communities and a majority of the management are dominant caste men. So the violence that the women face is influenced by both factors. It’s essential to note that such a massive move towards labour rights has not been won by other workers’ unions in the state,” says Nandita. “This is also why we intend to ensure that a majority of the shop-floor monitors are Dalit women. Eastman’s choice to co-sign the agreement sets a good example for the garment industry. We really hope that this brings the change towards ending GBVH, that we are all hoping to see,” she adds.

Thivya Rakini, state president of TTCU, told TNM, “I see the agreement as historic in the labour rights movement. Largely, in the garment industry, both buyers (clothing brands) and suppliers see trade unions as a problem. Often suppliers are only concerned with losing buyers because of trade union activities. For over a year now, we have spent many sleepless nights because of the time difference, in order to be on video calls with trade unions in other countries to convince them to stand with us in solidarity. About 97 such trade unions gave their support. So, not only in India, but we have fought for this issue — an issue of caste and gender — to be heard in as many countries that the brand works with as possible. AFWA and GLJ-ILRF have played a critical role in helping us do this.” 

Thivya adds that for the first time a brand has come on board as a stakeholder for combatting GBVH. “We understood that it’s the brand that makes several times the profit that a supplier company does, so it should be them who are the first stakeholders who are accountable. That we have managed to make that happen is one of the biggest victories of this agreement,” she said.

Thivya also explains how harrowing negotiations in sexual harassment cases have been over the years and what TTCU hopes will change. “Normally it’s left to us and the supplier company to sort out. Often at some point, we have to give up on the negotiations: say, if a company has agreed to offer, Rs 10,000 as compensation, they will give only Rs 7,000 or Rs 8,000. We have to just be satisfied with that,” she explained. With the new agreement in place, Thivya said that the process has become transparent. For this, it is the shop-floor monitors who are the first line of defence.

“So far, it’s been an Internal Committee (IC) constituted by the company or an NGO working on behalf of the company that we’ve had to work with [for cases of sexual harassment]. Now, the shop-floor monitors will not only be able to give advice to a worker on how to access and navigate grievance mechanisms, but also be monitoring for any form of retaliation against a worker who has raised a complaint. And finally, if the shop-floor monitors conclude that no proper measures are being taken to redress the complaint, TTCU will step in and take the issue forward,” Thivya said.

Jennifer (JJ) Rosenbaum, Executive Director of GLJ-ILRF had said in a joint press statement issued earlier that, “The agreement is a model for the role brands, suppliers, and labour partners have in eliminating gender-based violence from supply chains and promoting freedom of association. Brands play a critical role by using commercial relationships and business leverage to reduce the existing risk of GBVH, incentivising suppliers to comply with remediation. We urge all brands to sign similar agreements, join this model and replicate it across the industry.”

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