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September 12, 2022

Natchi Apparel US import ban lifted ‘thanks to’ collective bargaining

The US has dropped an import ban on Indian garment maker Natchi Apparel, imposed originally on concerns over forced labour.

By Hannah Abdulla

Natchi Apparel, is owned by Eastman Exports and was added to the US Custom and Border Protection’s banned list of importers on concerns of forced labour.

The factory, which supplied H&M Group, was the subject of global headlines last year when 20-year old worker Jeyasre Kathiravel was allegedly raped and murdered by her superior.

It eventually saw an agreement drawn up by H&M Group, 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, coined the Dindigul Agreement, designed to eliminate gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH). The agreement is hoped to reach out to more than 5,000, mostly female, workers in spinning mills and garment cut and sew facilities in the next year.

Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum (GLJ-ILRF) says it welcomes CBP’s removal of Natchi Apparel from the list of banned importers and in reaching its determination that forced labour conditions had been fully remedied at the factory.

“US Customs and Border Protection’s decision today recognises that the Dindigul Agreement brought about an end to gender-based violence and harassment and other forced labour indicators at the Natchi facility and that its enforceability ensures ongoing accountability,” said Jennifer (JJ) Rosenbaum, executive director of GLJ-ILRF.

She continued: “Brands that are serious about cleaning up their supply chains should adopt this model. Freedom of Association is the real antidote to forced labour and a key foundation of democracy.”

GLJ-ILRF said with the announcement the US Government recognises that freedom of association, collective bargaining, and representation by an independent union that enables workers to exercise collective agency to drive meaningful changes at their workplace is crucial to the fight against forced labour. The Dindigul Agreement highlights the important leadership of women workers in eliminating the barriers to workplace democracy created by gender-based violence and harassment.  

While there was a documented record of systemic gender-based violence and harassment at Natchi, TTCU, a Dalit and women-led union, supported by GLJ-ILRF, and the Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA), negotiated and won a comprehensive accountability and remediation programme with union-led training, an independent grievance mechanism, and real remedies for abuses. The programme is made enforceable through commitments by both the supplier and brands. It is the results of this programme that remediated forced labour conditions at the factory sufficient to allow CBP to lift the Withold Release Order (WRO) on Natchi Apparel.       

“Collective bargaining agreements are one of the most important tools we have to lift standards, prevent exploitation, and promote workplace democracy around the world and across global supply chains. CBP’s decision to lift the import ban based on the documented impact of the Dindigul bargaining agreement reflects a truly worker-centered trade policy that recognises the role unions and collective bargaining play in holding employers accountable and enabling workers to make meaningful improvements in their workplaces, ” said Cathy Feingold, AFL-CIO international director.

Sahiba Gill, senior staff attorney at GLJ-ILRF, added: “Global supply chains too often create economic pressure that leads to exploitative working conditions up to and including gender-based violence and harassment and forced labour. The Dindigul enforceable brand agreements, which include enforceable commitments from suppliers, buyers and labour stakeholders across the supply chain, offer a concrete model for bringing about meaningful change for workers through roles for unions, suppliers, brands, and global labour allies.”

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