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April 4, 2022

H&M Group in pledge to end factory gender-based violence in India

H&M Group joins other stakeholders in signing a landmark agreement to eliminate gender-based violence and harassment at Eastman Exports Natchi Apparels, India, after the death last year of garment worker, Jeyasre Kathrivel.

By Fi Forrest

The joint announcement by Swedish fashion retailer H&M Group (H&M), Eastman Exports Global Clothing Private Limited, the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union, the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, and Global Labor Justice- International Labor Rights Forum, is of the ground-breaking Dindigul Agreement, designed to eliminate gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH). The agreement is hoped to reach out to more than 5000, mostly female, workers in spinning mills and garment cut and sew facilities in the next year.

In signing this agreement, all the stakeholders honour the loss of a young garment worker, TTCU member, and Eastman employee, Jeyasre Kathrivel, whose life was tragically cut short as a result of gender-based violence and harassment. The announcement states: “We honour her legacy through this important agreement and ultimately meaningful change across the garment industry.”

At the time of Kathrivel’s death, Eastman was a supplier to H&M Group.

The stakeholders signed a set of agreements that jointly commit to working together from their supply chain role to eradicate discrimination based on gender, caste, or migration status; increase transparency; and develop a culture of mutual respect in the garment factory setting.  

In the announcement, H&M Group says it recognises the critical role of enabling collaboration between all stakeholders to reduce risks of GBVH, including at the intersection of gender and caste as well as of freedom of association violations, that contribute to GBVH in the garment industry.  

H&M Group wants to use its size and scale to influence the industry in a positive way and will contribute financially to develop awareness training for management and workers, an independent and trustworthy grievance mechanisms run by an independent assessor, and a framework for measuring and reporting impact with the ambition to find solutions that can be brought to scale at industry level.    

In a statement to Just Style, H&M’s Julia Bakutis, global social sustainability team, said: “Jeyasre Kathirave’s death was a tragedy, and our thoughts remain with her family. H&M Group wants to do its utmost to contribute to systemic and positive change in the industry and has therefore signed an agreement to work together with industry stakeholders to address, prevent and remedy gender-based violence and sexual harassment. We expect this agreement to contribute to a broader industry-wide initiative going forward. Every worker should feel safe working in our industry, whether they are employed by our suppliers or not. 

In line with our normal due diligence routines, we stopped placing orders with the supplier several months ago, we are, however, committed to work in collaboration to improve the conditions for workers and to being part of a solution.” 

Safety and respect at work for garment workers

As a part of the agreement, Eastman Exports, one of the largest clothing manufacturers in Tirupur, India, will amend its internal policies and procedures including strengthening the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) and establishing an independent grievance mechanism overseen by third-party experts. 

“All our employees deserve safety and respect at work,” said Subhash Tiwari, CEO of Eastman Exports: “It is our hope that this unique agreement and partnership will not only positively impact Natchi’s valued workforce but will also serve as a model for other garment factories.” 

The agreement draws language from the International Labor Organization’s Convention 190 concerning the elimination of violence and harassment in the workplace and strongly protects freedom of association and the rights of Dalit women workers. Tirupur is known as India’s textile spinning capital and is the largest producer of cotton yarn in India, employing over 280,000 workers in total.    

The agreement also includes an innovative program known as “Safe Circles” with regular training for all workers, supervisors, and managers; a peer education program; and shop floor monitors to detect and report gender-based violence and harassment . The program will be anchored by Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union (TTCU), a women-led independent and majority Dalit trade union of textile workers.  

The Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA), an alliance of trade unions and labour organisations representing garment workers across Asia and Global Labor Justice- International Labor Rights Forum (GLJ-ILRF), a global human and labour rights advocacy organisation focused on eliminating GBVH have joined as signatories and will support these efforts. 

“This agreement delivers power and support to women workers to monitor, prevent and remediate GBVH collectively and with management,” said Jeeva M, general secretary of TTCU. “We will use this as a model to organise against GBVH and caste-based discrimination industry-wide.” 

Anannya Bhattacharjee, the international coordinator of AFWA said, “The leadership and commitment of the Dalit women-led trade union TTCU has led to this historic agreement, which puts forth a model of how fashion brands, suppliers and trade unions can work together to prevent and remediate GBVH in Asian garment supply chains. We are happy to be partnering with H&M and Eastman Exports in the implementation of this agreement, which offers a multi-faceted approach to achieving violence-free workplaces.”  

“This 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,” says Jennifer (JJ) Rosenbaum, Executive Director of GLJ-ILRF. “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.”  

H&M Group recently moved to a profit for Q1 but both sales and profits in the period were impacted by the pandemic.

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