H&M signs landmark deal with supplier TN to end gender-based violence in garment factories
The deal comes more than a year after the rape and murder of TTCU member Jeyesre Kathiravel, a Dalit woman and employee of Natchi Apparels, by a supervisor at the same factory.
Fast fashion brand H&M and its Tamil Nadu-based supplier, Eastman Exports Global Clothing Private Limited, have 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 – was signed with Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labor Union (TTCU), an independent trade union led by Dalit women, Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA) and Global Labor Justice – International Labor Rights Forum (GLJ-ILRF). The agreement covers the Natchi Apparels complex in Dindigul, which comprises four garment units, two spinning mills and one printing unit, all of which are covered by the new agreement. The deal comes more than a year after the rape and murder of TTCU member Jeyesre Kathiravel, a Dalit woman and employee of Natchi Apparels, by a supervisor at the same factory. After the murder, it was TTCU, in partnership with AFWA, that led the fight for justice for Jeyesere’s family and the campaign to have such an agreement signed.
Dindigul’s agreement to end GBV is the second legally binding agreement in Asia to hold brands accountable in the garment industry, but the first in terms of sexual harassment and violence. The first legally binding agreement was the Rana Plaza fire and safety agreement, signed after the catastrophic fire at the Rana Plaza complex in Savar, Bangladesh, which killed 1,134 workers in 2013. The agreement in 2018 included over 200 brands, including H&M, Uniqlo and Inditex, which together source from more than 1,600 factories in Bangladesh.
This agreement puts in place several safeguards. First, there will be shop monitors, elected and trained by TTCU, to whom anonymous complaints of harassment (physical and verbal) can be made. Second, gender-based violence training will be provided to all factory staff, including workers, supervisors, management, and internal committee members. The training will be based on AFWA’s Safe Cricle model, which was built on ten years of experience in organizing for workers’ rights. The Safe Circle model, according to AFWA, is designed to bring about behavioral change in supply chains by creating engagement between diverse groups (“victims”, “perpetrators” and “bystanders”) and involving the whole workplace. Not only does the agreement allow for the dismissal or suspension of employment of anyone found guilty of inflicting GBV on female employees, but Nandita, Campaigns and Communications Coordinator, AFWA, says the supplier (Eastman) risks lose orders if found to be in violation of the agreement. “Now it is in the company’s interest to ensure that instances of GBV do not occur and if they do, immediate action to remedy the situation is taken.”
This agreement is also the second of its kind in the world in the garment industry (the first is the Lesotho agreement). TTCU and AFWA see this as a victory for gender and caste justice. “Majority of factory workers are women and from Dalit communities and majority of managers are male from dominant caste. Thus, the violence that women face is influenced by both factors. It is critical to note that such a massive movement towards labor rights was not won by the other state worker unions,” says Nandita. “This is also the reason why we intend to ensure that the majority of workshop supervisors are Dalit women. Eastman’s choice to co-sign the agreement is a good example for the apparel industry. We really hope this brings the change towards the end of GBV that we all hope to see,” she adds.
Also read: 10 months after death of TN garment worker, Dalit Women’s Union fights for rights
Thivya Rakini, TTCU State Chairperson, told TNM, “I consider the agreement historic in the workers’ rights movement. Largely in the apparel industry, buyers (apparel brands) and suppliers see unions as a problem. Often, suppliers are only worried about losing buyers to union activities. For more than a year now, we have spent many sleepless nights because of jet lag, in order to be in videoconference with unions from other countries to convince them to support us in solidarity. About 97 of these unions gave their support. So not only in India, but we fought to make this issue – a caste and gender issue – heard in as many countries that the brand works with as possible. AFWA and GLJ-ILRF have been instrumental in helping us do this. »
Thivya adds that for the first time, a brand has engaged as a stakeholder in the fight against GBV. “We understood that it is the brand that makes many times more profit than a supplier company, so they should be the first stakeholders to be held accountable. The fact that we were able to make this happen is one of the biggest wins of this deal,” she said.
Thivya also explains how difficult negotiations in sexual harassment cases have been over the years and what TTCU hopes to change. “Normally, it is up to us and the supplier company to sort it out. Often at some point, we have to give up negotiations: say, if a company has agreed to offer Rs 10,000 in compensation, it will only give Rs 7,000 or Rs 8,000. We just have to be satisfied with that,” she explained. With the new deal in place, Thivya said the process has become seamless. For this, it is the workshop monitors who constitute the first line of defence.
“Until now, we have had to work with an Internal Committee (IC) set up by the company or an NGO working on behalf of the company. [for cases of sexual harassment]. Now, shop monitors will not only be able to advise a worker on how to access and navigate grievance mechanisms, but also monitor any form of retaliation against a worker who has filed a complaint. And finally, if the shop monitors conclude that no appropriate action is being taken to remedy the complaint, TTCU will step in and move the issue forward,” Thivya said.
Jennifer (JJ) Rosenbaum, executive director of GLJ-ILRF, said in a joint press release issued earlier that “the agreement is a model for the role that brands, suppliers and social partners play in eliminating gender-based violence from supply chains and promoting freedom of association Brands play a critical role in using commercial relationships and commercial leverage to reduce the existing risk of GBV, by incentivizing suppliers to comply with measures We urge all brands to sign similar agreements, join this model and replicate it across the industry.”