A legally binding agreement has been signed by H&M with one of its largest Indian clothing suppliers in a bid to protect female garment workers against sexual violence and harassment.
Last year 20-year-old Jeyasre Kathiravel was found dead after finishing a shift at Natchi Apparel, a factory (owned by Eastman Exports) making clothes for H&M, the world’s second largest clothes retailer, in Tamil Nadu.
According to a report in the Guardian, her supervisor has confessed to her murder and is awaiting trial. It is alleged that Kathiravel had also been raped and had suffered intimidation and sexual harassment at work before her death.
The Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), has been collecting evidence of other instances gender-based violence at Natchi Apparel, leading H&M and clothes manufacturer Eastman Exports to enter discussions with the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union (TTCU), and other labour rights groups.
Eastman Exports denies that the murder was linked to the factory or workplace sexual harassment and initially stated it strongly disagreed with the WRC and TTCU’s claims about working conditions there.
Sexual harassment and related stories
Under the terms of the agreement, said to be the first of its kind, all employees will receive gender-based violence training and the TTCU will recruit and train female workers as shop-floor monitors to ensure the mainly female workforce is not subject to verbal harassment and sexual intimidation.
Women will be able to report sexual harassment anonymously to an independent panel that has the power to dismiss perpetrators and seek financial compensation for victims and their families – a system that will supersede the existing internal complaints committees, that are mandatory in India but have been seen as failing women.
H&M stated that it wanted to see the agreement as part of a wider push for change in the industry: “H&M Group wants to do our utmost to contribute to systemic and positive change in the industry and have therefore signed an agreement to work together with industry stakeholders to address, prevent and remedy gender-based violence and sexual harassment,” a spokesperson said. “We expect this agreement to contribute to a broader industry-wide initiative going forward.”
The H&M agreement is not the first to strengthen employee protections when it comes to violence against female workers. In 2019, the Lesotho agreement was signed in which the US brands Levi Strauss, Wrangler Jeans and The Children’s Place after the WRC uncovered the systematic sexual assault of more than 120 women at three jeans factories in Lesotho.
Boycotts and new markets
H&M plans to shut 240 stores this year and open 95 new spaces as the fashion retailer looks to re-orientate its business in response to Covid, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and repression within China. The firm paused all sales in Russia (its sixth largest market), Belarus and Ukraine, affecting 185 stores, earlier this month and also stopped online sales in Russia.
Having raised concerns about cotton sourced from the Xinjiang region, the Chinese authorities encouraged a boycott of the retailer in 2021.
In response, H&M has said it is launching in six new markets, with Cambodia having already opened via franchise. The other new H&M markets in 2022 will be Ecuador, Kosovo and North Macedonia, and via franchise Costa Rica and Guatemala. In 2023, it plans to open its first store in Albania.