How the murder of a Dalit worker sparked a movement that led H&M to fight gender-based violence


At 18, Jeyasre Kathiravel had aspirations like any other young person. She wanted to go to college, get a degree, and see where life would take her.

But it was a radical dream. Kathiravel comes from a Dalit family and was the first woman from her village of Thennampatti in Tamil Nadu to pursue higher education. Although college is expensive and her family cannot afford it, that has not deterred Kathiravel. To pay for her education, she did what many women around the world have done: she started a job in a local factory.

In 2018, Kathiravel started her life as a garment worker at Natchi Apparels, a factory in Kaithian Kottai in Dindigul district of Tamil Nadu. Natchi Apparels, a supplier unit of global fashion brand H&M, was owned by Eastman ExportsIndia’s fourth largest garment exporter.

Unlike many of the other men and women at this factory, Kathiravel worked tirelessly to complete her bachelor’s degree, even though her working hours were often long, starting late at night and extending until dawn.

She obtained her Bachelor of Arts in Tamil and by the end of 2020 she had started studying for a Master of Arts in Tamil at Arulmigu Palaniandavar College of Arts and Culture in the temple city of Palani. At the age of 21, it seemed like her world was slowly changing.

But on New Year’s Day 2021, Kathiravel was assassinated. As it was later discovered, she was killed by her male supervisor at the factory after months of sexual harassment. In ensuing investigations, something that was common knowledge among many of the women at the factory has now come to light publicly. Despite Kathiravel’s attempts to shed light on these incidents of sexual harassment, no action has been taken.

In the aftermath of his murder, Kathiravel’s colleagues – 25 garment workers at the factory – came forward and reported to The Guardian a “culture of gender-based violence and harassment”. Although the company attempted to coerce Kathiravel’s family into accepting a meager financial settlement, there was an unexpected source of strength for Kathiravel’s family.

Kathiravel had been a member of the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labor Union, a Union led by Dalit women founded in 2013, with 11,000 workers of which 80% worked for global fashion giants in Europe and the United States. When the pressure started to build up, Kathiravel’s family and the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labor Union refused to move.

The fight goes global

Over the next few months, the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labor Union has joined forces with its partners, the Asia Floor Wage Alliance and the Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum, two organizations that have led global campaigns to fight against violence and harassment in fashion. supply chains.

Ban a report in Caravan by Sowmya, a Coimbatore-based journalist, India’s English media barely noticed murder. Internationally, however, The Guardian reported Kathiravel’s murder in February last year.

The months that followed saw a small local struggle turn into an international campaign despite the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The “Justice for Jeyasre » The campaign was launched with the participation of labor and women’s rights organizations around the world with demands for accountability from international fashion brands such as H&M and others in the fight against violence and harassment of women workers in their global supply chains.

Members of an Indonesian trade union express their solidarity at the global vigil held on April 21 last year. 1 credit

Multinational fashion companies located in Europe and the United States almost always outsource and subcontract their work to supplier units, often located in countries in the Global South.

This is partly to improve the efficiency of the process. But in addition, this independent relationship between working conditions and the brand image of their products on the world stage gives these companies a form of strategic denial.

Although these factories have increased employment opportunities for women, they remain largely invisible to these global companies and work in extremely precarious conditions, making them more prone to violence and harassment.

Although international organizations, such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, have called on companies to perform “human rights due diligence”, the sequel leaves a lot to be desired.

At the heart of this directive is a growing recognition of the persistence of a “governance deficit”. This refers to the failure to address human rights abuses arising from corporate activities, which makes accountability and enforcement a major challenge. This is all the more true as these companies operate across borders in varying national contexts with distinct laws and regulatory frameworks.

In Tamil Nadu, it was no different. the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labor Union has been organizing against such exploitative practices since 2019. The union documents discrimination and harassment faced by female workers, including physical, sexual and verbal harassment, caste-based discrimination, working during lunch hours. and even being denied bathroom breaks.

The union also highlighted the problem of wage theft, which included a series of illegal pay cuts, non-payment of overtime, unpaid gratuities and cases where workers were fired before they were entitled. to a reward.

The first light

One of the first victories for the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labor Union and the “Justice for Jeyasre” campaign came in March 2021, in the form of a fair and mutually acceptable compensation payment for the family of Kathiravel from Eastman Exports .

In April 2021, Kathiravel’s friends and colleagues joined over 1,000 other participants from 33 countries at a world vigil. Their message was loud and clear with a poster – “Don’t Kill Me Over Fashion” – held above the teleconference window.

Friends and colleagues of Jeyasre Kathiravel at the global vigil held on April 21 last year. 1 credit

This paved the way for more collective organizing in the coming months when two leaders of the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labor Union – Thivya Rakini and Jeeva M – spoken to the public in multiple US cities with the goal of connecting, learning, and developing joint strategies with labor leaders, unions, and other organizations working on similar issues.

At an event in New York on November 3, which I attended on behalf of the 16 Days Global Campaign At the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labor Union once again made their demands clear: a binding agreement between Eastman Exports and H&M to end gender-based violence against women garment workers.

Hard-won victory

After months of campaigning and sustained negotiations, the Justice for Jeyasre campaign won a big big win on April 1, when the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labor Union, Asia Floor Wage Alliance and the Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum jointly announced the “Dindigul Agreementreferring to the district where the factory is located.

The deal includes a “set of enforceable agreements with fast fashion brand H&M and Eastman Exports,” extending protection to 5,000 garment workers.

Among other things, the companies agreed to an independent complaint investigation mechanism, new protections against gender-based violence and harassment, freedom of association guarantees to speak with a collective voice. and worker-led monitoring of gender-based violence. violence and harassment and discrimination based on caste by the workshop.

Thivya Rakini, President of the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labor Union, signs the Dindigul Agreement. Credit: Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labor Union, via Twitter

Another fundamental feature of the agreement is a broad definition of what constitutes gender-based violence and harassment – ​​a broad definition that is informed by the International Labor Organization Congress 190the first international treaty against violence and harassment in the world of work.

The legally binding Convention 190 was ratified by 12 countries till date. Although India has not yet ratified it, the Dindigul Agreement offers a promising example of how Convention 190 can be implemented even before its ratification.

new beginnings

What the ‘Justice for Jeyasre’ campaign has revealed is that gender-based violence in the world of work, if left unaddressed, can turn into extreme events: ranging from rape to femicide. This campaign has also shown that unions can come together, organizing on tactics and strategies to ensure that even opaque multinationals can be forced to respond and bring about change.

Indeed, this campaign has shown many who have worked on it that governments, employers, trade unions, civil society organizations and other stakeholders often play a key role in preventing behavior that can escalate in deadly violence.

This victory for the “Justice for Jeyasre” campaign against a global fashion giant was not easy. Poignantly, this is precisely the legacy of Jeyasre Kathiravel – to persist against incredible odds in order to achieve what may at first seem impossible.

Ardra Manasi is Senior Advocacy and Partnerships Program Coordinator at the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, based at Rutgers University. Her work focuses on gender, labor and human rights. She tweets at @ArdraManasi.


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