Sexual harassment: Tamil Nadu takes action in the clothing industry

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Tamil Nadu’s government recently established a multi-stakeholder coalition aimed at stamping out sexual harassment in the state’s numerous clothing and textile factories, and commentators say it offers a clear template for other states and industries to end gender-based sexual harassment and violence at work in India.

When the Tamil Nadu government announced the launch of a multi-stakeholder Textile Industry Coalition (TiC) in February, it became clear that the state government is determined to spearhead the fight against sexual harassment in the nation’s garment industry.

The move brings together a coalition of stakeholders – such as clothing brands, textile manufacturers, government agencies, industry associations, trade unions and civil society organisations – in a bid to eliminate violence and sexual harassment to women in the Tamil Nadu’s women-dominated textile industry.

In particular, the initiative will seek to strengthen the implementation of the Prevention of Sexual Harassment (PoSH) Act, legislation which requires all Indian businesses to take steps to protect female workers from sexual harassment at work. The PoSH Act also provides a mechanism for dealing with complaints of sexual harassment made by female staff, but campaigners say the Act is poorly adhered to across the country.

Photograph: iStock, credit GCShutter

The TiC aims to develop a culture of zero tolerance towards sexual harassment and violence in Tamil Nadu’s textile sector, with the goal of creating “a safe and empowering work environment for women in the textile industry”.

“The TiC will also work towards creating industry-standardised guidelines and codes of conduct to promote best practices and accountability,” stated UN Women Asia and the Pacific, a United Nations organisation that works towards gender equality and the empowerment of women, in a press release.
“It will cover all aspects of the textile value chain, from the factory floor to the community and the policy level.

"The coalition is led by the Department of Social Welfare and Women’s Empowerment and the Department of Handlooms, Handicrafts, Textiles and Khadi of Tamil Nadu and convened by UN Women with diverse stakeholders.”

Tamil Nudu’s ‘commitment’ to safer workplaces
Speaking at the launch of the coalition, V. Amuthavalli, IAS, Commissioner of the Commissionerate of Social Welfare for the Tamil Nadu government, said: “This initiative aligns with the Tamil Nadu government’s mandate. On 21 February, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu formally released the State Women’s Policy.

Additionally, the government is rolling out a new app for quarterly filing of reports.
“These measures demonstrate the commitment of Tamil Nadu state towards creating a safer and more inclusive work environment for women.”

V. Amuthavalli added that Tamil Nadu “has taken significant steps and efforts in implementing PoSH. The state currently has 5,493 Internal Complaints Committees (ICCs) in government organisations and 10,946 ICCs in private establishments.”

Under PoSH, if an organisation employees 10 or more people the employer must establish an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) to investigate complaints of sexual harassment from female workers, and every district in India must establish a Local Complaints Committee (LCC) to handle complaints from female workers in businesses with less than 10 employees where an ICC has not been set up.

Both internal and local complaints committees have the power to make recommendations to the employer for redressal of the women’s complaint. This includes disciplinary action for the perpetrator in line with company policies, deduction of salary for payment of compensation to the female victim, termination of the perpetrator’s employment, an order to carry out community service and reporting the incident to the police for possible criminal prosecution, if the victim wishes the police to investigate the alleged sexual harassment.

Adding that the launch of the TiC is a reflection of Tamil Nadu government’s commitment to the welfare and dignity of women workers in the textile sector, Dharmendra Pratap Yadav, IAS, Principal Secretary of the Department of Textiles in Tamil Nadu, said: “We believe that by eliminating violence and sexual harassment, we can enhance the productivity and competitiveness of the industry, as well as the socio-economic development of the state.”

Kumar Jayant, IAS, Additional Chief Secretary of the Department of Labour and Skill Development, Government of Tamil Nadu, said that safe workplaces where there is zero tolerance for sexual harassment and violence were essential if the state is to increase the female labour force participation rate.

“This is a groundbreaking initiative that sets an example for other industries to follow,” stated Susan Ferguson, Country Representative of UN Women India, at the launch.

“We are not only addressing a critical issue, but also creating a culture of respect, equality, and empowerment for all women in the workforce. This is a collective effort to bring about positive change and build a safer, more inclusive industry where everyone can flourish without fear.”

Majority of workers in Tamil Nadu’s textile industry are female
According to UN Women Asia and the Pacific, there are 2,049 major and medium-sized textile mills in India – 893 of which are Tamil Nadu state. Similarly, 792 of the total of the estimated 996 small textile units in the country are found in Tamil Nadu. The majority of the textile and garment workforce in the state are women, says UN Women.

According to the Tamil Nadu government, the 893 large and medium textile mills include 18 co-operative spinning mills, 17 national textile corporation mills and 23 composite mills. The total ‘spinning capacity’ is 14.75 million spindles and the total labour force is estimated to be around 217,000. Although the privately-owned textile industry makes a vital contribution in terms of providing employment and wider local economic benefits, employment insecurity, including precarious contracts, are commonplace across the sector, and commentators say the problem has got worse since the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Employment insecurity increases women’s vulnerability to gender-based violence and harassment, and has the effect of silencing women who fear they will lose their jobs if they speak out or complain,” says the IndustriALL Global Union, which represents 50 million workers in 140 countries in the mining, energy and manufacturing sectors.

IndustriALL adds that the demand for ‘just in time’ clothing and textile production, both nationally and from global supply chains, often results in significant production pressures and excessive targets. “They are the most cited causes of verbal and sexual harassment and a culture of incivility in the workplace, perpetrated by male supervisors and managers,” says the union.

According to POSHequili (POSH at Equilibro Advosory LLP), an organisation that helps companies comply with the PoSH law, the TiC “reflects the Tamil Nadu government’s unwavering commitment to women’s welfare and empowerment by enlisting the cooperation of important stakeholders” such as H&M, one of the world’s leading apparel brands.

Omang Rai Narang, country manager of H&M India, said: “H&M Group is committed to respecting fundamental human rights of people across our value chain. We are happy to be part of TiC, which aligns with our objective of being a fair and equal company defined by our values. We hope that through this coalition, we are able to firmly cement the principle of zero tolerance to gender-based violence.

“This would greatly enhance the working conditions and the quality of life for the women workers in the textile and apparel industry, who are the backbone of our business.”

Ananda Krishnan, executive director, KPR Mill Ltd, an Indian clothing manufacturer and a member of the TiC, said: “We welcome the launch of TiC, which is a timely and relevant initiative to address the issue of violence and sexual harassment in the textile sector.

“We are ready to cooperate with all the stakeholders and implement the necessary measures to prevent and combat such incidents in our factory. We believe that by creating a safe and respectful work environment, we can improve the morale and performance of our workers, as well as the reputation and profitability of our factory.”

Anniversary of female worker’s murder
Incidentally, the initiative comes approximately three years after the rape and murder of a 20-year-old female Dalit factory worker drew public attention to poor working conditions and caste- and gender-based inequalities in India’s garment industry.

On New Year’s Day 2021, Jeyasre Kathiravel was summoned to work by her male supervisor at a textile factory named Natchi Apparels. Four days later, her decomposed body was discovered in a field near her village. The subsequent police investigation and criminal trial heard she was killed by the supervisor after being subject to months of sexual harassment.

According to media reports, it was alleged that despite repeated attempts by Kathiravel to highlight incidents of sexual harassment by her supervisor, no action was taken. Natchi Apparels, a supplier unit for the global fashion brand H&M, is owned by Eastman Exports, the fourth-largest garment exporter in India.

According to other females employed at Natchi Apparels at the time of Jeyasre’s death in 2021, there had been a history of incidents of sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence at the site. They alleged the culprits were male supervisors and managers, who almost exclusively belonged to dominant caste groups, with a poor opinion of people classed as lower castes. Their victims were female workers, usually migrants from poor Dalit families.

Women workers also alleged that, although CCTV cameras were used to control employees when they entered the factory or took bathroom breaks, the cameras did not cover areas of the workplace where all the harassment occurred.
“So, there was never any evidence of the sexual and physical harassment that women workers suffered on the factory floor. Managers used this opportunity to torture us,” one female worker reportedly told the local trade union.

According to the International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN), the working conditions for female workers at the Natchi Apparels factory around the time of Jeyasre’s death in 2021 illustrate the violent consequences of intersectional caste and gender-based discrimination in India’s garment sector.

The IDSN added: “In some parts of the industry, working conditions [in clothing factories] are akin to modern slavery. The garment industry in Tamil Nadu disproportionately relies on Dalit women for cheap and coerced labour.

“Suppliers tap into the marginalisation of Dalit communities to pay low wages and push workers to meet the high production targets demanded by big brands.”

‘Justice for Jeyasre’ campaign
Jeyasre had been a member of the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union (TTCU), a Dalit women-led trade union founded in 2013, that has 11,000 female members, 80 per cent of whom are employed in Indian factories producing clothes for global fashion giants in Europe and the United States.

Following Jeyasre’s murder, the TTCU partnered with the Asia Floor Wage Alliance and Global Labour Justice-International Labour Rights Forum – two organisations which lead global campaigns to address violence and harassment in fashion supply chains – and labour and women’s rights organisations across the world to launch the ‘Justice for Jeyasre’ campaign. This called on international fashion brands, such as H&M, to address violence and harassment against women workers in their global supply chains, including India.

In May 2022, H&M and Eastman Exports Global Clothing Private Limited, one of India’s largest garment manufacturers, jointly signed a legally-binding agreement pledging to prevent gender-based violence and harassment against women workers at garment factories under Eastman’s control.

According to media reports at the time, the agreement would see the establishment of shopfloor monitors, elected and trained by TTCU, to whom anonymous complaints of harassment could be made. If the shopfloor monitors concluded that no proper measures are being taken to redress the complaint, TTCU will have the power to step in and take the issue forward.

All workers, supervisors and managers were also given gender-based violence training, and anyone found to have inflicted gender-based violence and harassment on a female employee is at high risk of dismissal or suspension from employment.

It was also reported that if Eastman Exports is found to be in violation of the agreement, it will be in danger of losing orders from H&M.

Important lessons for other states
Meanwhile, POSHequili said Tamil Nadu’s TiC provides “important lessons” for other states and industries on how to make Indian workplaces of all types safer and to prevent gender-based violence in the nation’s textile industry.

“States can identify key sectors where workplace safety and gender-based violence issues are prevalent and develop industry-specific coalitions or initiatives to address them effectively. Other states can model their collaboration efforts after this one in order to leverage collective expertise and resources in tackling complex issues like sexual harassment,” said POSHequili in a statement.

“Government departments and officials need to be actively involved in promoting workplace safety gender equality. This is exemplified in this case when the leadership of the Department of Social Welfare and Women’s Empowerment and the Department of Handlooms, Handicrafts, Textiles and Khadi of Tamil Nadu came together to make sure that these initiatives are successful and long-lasting. Other states should give equal priority to leadership and support.”

POSHequili added: “Leading clothing companies like H&M are actively involved in the TiC programme, which highlights the significance of private sector involvement in advancing gender equality and workplace safety.

“Other states should promote co-operation between the public and private sectors in order to take advantage of corporate entities’ response and power to influence industry transformation for the better.”

Click here for more information on Tamil Nadu’s Textile Industry Coalition (TiC).


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