"We are nothing more to the factory.”
Women working for a H&M supplier in Tamil Nadu claim that they have faced widespread sexual violence and harassment.
This comes weeks after the body of 21-year-old Jeyasre Kathiravel was found in a field close to her home after she failed to return from her shift at the Natchi Apparels factory.
Jeyasre’s supervisor was charged with her murder.
Her family and co-workers claimed she was too scared to report harassment she allegedly faced from her supervisor in the weeks before her death.
Since then, 25 women have lodged complaints to the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union (TTCU) of sexual assault, harassment and verbal abuse by male supervisors and managers at the factory, which is owned by Eastman Exports.
Natchi Apparels makes clothes for H&M and other fashion brands.
Female workers said they faced persistent sexual violence and verbal abuse in the workplace.
They said it was an environment where male supervisors wielded “total power” over the women beneath them.
One said that “even married women are not safe. It is just that [abuse] and production targets. We are nothing more to the factory.”
Another told The Guardian that sexual violence had been going for years.
The women stated that high production targets and a culture of verbal abuse had resulted in sexual harassment and assault becoming “normal”.
It was alleged that workers had to make around 1,000 items of clothing every day and that the pressure to meet targets was relentless.
One worker said: “All the supervisors at the factory are men.
“Every day we are constantly verbally abused and they use sexual language and slurs against us.”
“This kind of behaviour is just part of the job. Everybody knows it. It is just part of factory life.”
If they complained about the working conditions, employees feared losing their jobs. It was a major concern given that many of the women were the main earners for their families.
One woman said: “If your supervisor says you must do something, you have to do it. But what can we do? There is no other work but the factory.
“Nobody wants to complain as nobody can afford to lose their job.”
Eastman Exports has denied the allegations, saying that the factory had secure mechanisms for the reporting of any grievances.
The factory has an internal complaints commission in place to deal with sexual harassment claims, as well as a grievance redressal committee and a workforce representatives committee.
It said it had received no complaints in relation to the Jeyasre Kathiravel case.
In a statement, the company said:
“We have zero tolerance for any negative employment practice.
“Both our factory management and supervisors extend fair treatment to all our workers at all levels.
“We have got several grievance redressal mechanisms well functioning in our factory, through which grievances received if any are properly addressed and resolved.
“Workers’ redressal forums are very active and take up every single case. Counselling is also carried out by relevant professionals to our employees.”
Testimonies recorded by unions describe similar allegations of sexual and verbal abuse.
A culture of fear had also prevented women from filing official complaints.
One employee explained: “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’.
“Since our complaints are never taken seriously by the higher management, we remain silent about all the issues we are facing.”
One woman said Jeyasre’s death had scared other workers.
“We leave our homes to come and work in the company and trust the company to provide a safe place – but instead all we face is harassment.”
Eastman Exports denied that Jeyasre’s death is linked to the factory.
The company stated that police reports and an investigation by the NGO Save claim that Jeyasre was in a “love” relationship with her alleged killer.
H&M has launched an independent investigation into the working conditions and sexual assault allegations at Natchi Apparels.
The investigation is working with TTCU members to ensure that the factory is a safe place for women.
David Sävman, head of global supply chain, H&M Group, said:
“H&M Group is taking this situation incredibly seriously, and we recognise that we have 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.
“The allegations put forward regarding this supplier factory and the conditions described by the workers are completely unacceptable.”
Human rights campaigners state that sexual violence potentially affects millions of female workers at global fashion suppliers.
Women at Natchi Apparels also made allegations about the wider working conditions. It was reported that they are paid approximately £80 a month.
One worker said:
“We have to hit targets and if we don’t we have to keep working until the order is done.”
Others claimed they were not allowed to access drinking water or use the toilet except on a 15-minute lunch break.
Eastman Exports denied the claims, saying that workers were free to access the facilities at any time. It added that the factory had annual social audits.
A statement said: “We maintain high standards of labour practice strictly complying with global industry standards.
“Several globally reputed social auditors from India and other parts of the world have conducted inspections for months before certifying our production units on factors attributing to social compliance.”
H&M remains a buyer at Eastman Exports while the investigation continues.
The investigation will look at any link between Jeyasre Kathiravel’s death and alleged sexual violence at the factory.
The company said: “We fully support this investigation and any future relationship between H&M Group and this supplier will entirely depend on the results, and the factory management team taking necessary actions and guaranteeing a fully transparent line of communication going forward.
“All forms of abuse or harassment are against everything that H&M Group stands for.”