Today’s newsletter broaches a lot of distressing topics, including death, sexual harassment and gender-based violence. If you need a break from the news or feel particularly fragile, feel free to click off now and return at another time if you prefer (no pressure!) If you do read on, please amplify the news and demand justice for Jeyasre Kathiravel.
The fashion industry thrives on cognitive dissonance. It is built on an out of sight, out of mind complex that allows customers to disconnect their purchases from sweatshop scandals and sees retailers continually ignore the human rights abuses that fester in their supply chains.
On the 5th January, Jeyasre Kathiravel, a 20-year-old Dalit garment worker at H&M supplier Natchi Apparels in Tamil Nadu, was found dead. Her immediate supervisor, Thangadurai, is facing charges for murder, after confessing to authorities that he raped and killed Jeyasre. The Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union (TTCU) is an independent women-led trade union that has been organising workers at Natchi Apparels and is providing support for her family. Evidence collated by TTCU proves that it was the unchecked sexual harassment in this H&M supplier factory that led to Jeyasre’s untimely death. The factory is also listed as a textile supplier for Lidl.
According to the Asia Wage Floor Alliance, “seven women workers at Natchi Apparels have testified that Jeyasre was sexually harassed multiple times by the supervisor. They have stated that the supervisor had a history of sexually harassing women” and that he is not the only supervisor or manager who indulged in name-calling, slut-shaming, bullying, beating and assault. A lack of CCTV cameras on the factory floor, however, prevents instances of gender-based violence from being recorded. As one anonymous worker pointed out, women workers are forced to accept sexual harassment as a “normal” condition in the workplace.
Workers also reported other issues in the factory, including the non-payment of minimum wages for some categories of workers, forced unpaid overtime, high production targets and forced resignation of workers before the payment of yearly bonus.
The female workers at Natchi Apparels distrust the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) after witnessing those who complained being demoted, fired, or the target of increased violence. Others are unaware of how the complaints process works. With no observable change in the behaviour of the supervisors and managers, there is little incentive to report harassment.
A petition among organisations is circulating in solidarity with TTCU who are demanding immediate action from H&M to ensure adequate and prompt reparation for the rape and murder of Jeyasre Kathiravel. They are urging H&M to guarantee the safety of her family and co-workers who are currently facing threats, and to take immediate measures to end the culture of gender-based violence and harassment in Natchi Apparels.
This requires H&M to acknowledge the failure of its internal audit system, to redress the failures of the Internal Complaints Committees (ICC), in accordance with Indian law, and to intervene to uphold workers’ right to freedom of association by promoting and enabling union activities and collective bargaining in this factory to prevent the occurrence of similar incidents in the future.
A spokesperson for H&M told Deadline News that they were “deeply saddened” by Jeyasre’s death and said they are reviewing their relationship with the factory. H&M have also threatened to cut ties with Natchi Apparels, arguing that “H&M Group does not tolerate harassment of any kind, and suppliers that do not share these values will not be part of our supply chain”.
This ultimately passes the blame onto the supplier factory: “any future relationship with this supplier will depend on the factory management team taking necessary actions within a set timeline, and guaranteeing a fully transparent line of communication going forward”. If H&M drops Natchi Apparels - as caught-out fashion brands so often do - they will evade accountability and, in making room for the next offending brand, sweep any attempts at regulation under the carpet.
It also sets a dangerous precedent. Garment workers in the area will never report sexual harassment again for fear of retaliation.
So why are news outlets not screaming about this?!
To this date, only one UK publication (that I had never heard of) has reported on Jeyasre’s death.
Meanwhile, mainstream media has been too preoccupied with promoting H&M’s “sustainability” bullshit. Instead of scrutinising the retailer’s every move, news outlets have praised H&M’s new “holistic” denim collaboration (meet the new greenwashing word on the block) and advertised H&M’s recycled polyester kidswear collection. One article offered a more critical view of H&M’s so-called “Green Machine” but failed to consider how the retailer’s unethical labour practices impinge on their sustainability record.
If you are unethical, you are not sustainable. If you are unsustainable, you are not ethical. You need both: to be kind to the people and the planet. To put the two before profit.
And H&M is neither. It is an exploitative, wasteful and polluting retailer with blood on its hands.
While the conditions of the Natchi Apparels factory are horrific, they are not uncommon. We must demand justice and compensation for Jeyasre and all workers subject to gender-based violence and exploitation.
Please amplify this tragic news and flood H&M’s social media posts with “Justice for Jeyasre Kathiravel” and #PayYourWorkers. This needs to get the media attention it deserves.
Because fashion should never be to die for.
In other news…
The monopolisation of the fashion marketplace is growing ever stronger, as Boohoo agrees to buy Debenham’s online business for a mere £55 million. Boohoo will not, however, take on any of the firm’s remaining 118 high street stores, meaning that 12,000 retail staff will lose their jobs. Meanwhile, ASOS is in exclusive talks to buy Topshop, Topman and Miss Selfridge out of administration. This is taking place amid a commercial landscape where Boohoo Group PLC, H&M group and Inditex own 23 brands between them. As Sian Conway writes, “ Just look to Big Tech to see what a disaster that can be! The bigger the brand, the more power and leverage. We need external regulation of working standards … ASAP. “
With the collapse of Arcadia Group, concerns around the status of unpaid orders have heightened. As it stands, Arcadia supplier factories and garment workers are still waiting for the $100 million dollars owed for orders completed prior to the pandemic. So, while bids for Topshop exceed £300 million, garment worker protests - protests which remain unshaken by beatings and police crackdowns - are being ignored. In a harrowing article, one affected worker, Tahmina Azad, “thought of killing myself, I thought of killing my children and setting them free from this torture”, after being left unemployed and starving. Coverage like this is so important; it humanises a widespread problem and demands better of brands.
The situation is so dire that as many as 357,000 of Bangladesh’s 4.1 million garment workers may have lost their jobs due to the pandemic, more than six times the official figure of 56,372. Apparel workers in Bangladesh are now being rehired for even lower pay.
This Gal-dem article also puts things into perspective: “Forget Philip Green – for women of colour the disappearing British high street threatens their livelihoods”.
Last year, the California state legislature failed to pass the Garment Worker Protection Act which would drastically improve worker health and safety in the state’s second largest manufacturing sector. Now in 2021, the new Garment Worker Protections bill has been reintroduced and is backed by significantly more CA legislators this time around. You can read more about what SB 62 would mean in practice and how to support it here.
Fashion Revolution recently published their latest Consumer Survey Report. Among the key findings were that 75% of people agreed that fashion brands should do more to improve the lives of the women making their clothes, up from 72% in 2018; 70% of consumers agreed that governments have a role to play in ensuring clothing is produced sustainably; and only 14% of people tried to purchase second-hand clothing instead of new. You can read the full report here.
Anti-capitalist journalist and author, Tansy Hoskins, shares her style guide on how to dress to protest.
6 months after '#BlackOutTuesday, Erica Gerald Mason asks if fashion brands really squared up.
While greenwashing is having quite the moment, Venetia La Manna shared a roundup of this week’s fashion marketing faux pas.
A really interesting article on whether the thrift flipping trend perpetuates fatphobia.
When fashion is treated as disposable, some brands are paying customers to repeatedly wear their clothes.
The plight of India’s cotton farmers exposes fashion brands to reputational risk in the supply chain, argues Jag Gill.
In a post-Brexit climate, UK retailers could abandon goods EU customers want to return, with some even thinking of burning them because it is cheaper than bringing them home.
Elizabeth Cline asks if the circular economy will save the planet.
Fashion brands are learning to master initiatives before marketing them - could this turn the tide against greenwashing?
Monochrome power suits were the talk of the presidential inauguration, but what does this say about American fashion today? Liam Hess finds out.
Hey, maybe I’m nit picking, but “10 Sustainable Brands You Should be Shopping in 2021” isn’t the headline we need right now. “Sustainable” and “shopping” don’t belong in the same sentence if the path to sustainability is being sold as a commodity, as something you buy into. Of course, we should all try to support ethical and sustainable brands where we can, but we can’t purchase our way to planetary equilibrium.
When the true cost of (fast) fashion is becoming harder to ignore, why do we still buy it?
What is gender-based violence?
Gender-based violence (GBV) describes harmful acts directed at an individual based on their gender. This includes physical, sexual, psychological and economic harm inflicted in public or in private, as well as threats of violence, coercion and manipulation. This can take many forms such as intimate partner violence, sexual harassment, child marriage, female genital mutilation and so-called “honour crimes”. While GBV can affect all genders, it most profoundly impacts women and girls, with one in three women experiencing sexual or physical violence in their lifetime.
Gender-based violence is particularly prevalent in the global garment and textiles industry, an industry riddled with gender inequality. It is estimated that 80% of the global garment workforce are women, while managerial and supervision roles are often exclusively reserved for men. In Natchi Apparels, the gender ratio is skewed in favour of men, with 90% of supervisors being male, while 90% of garment workers are women.
The International Labour Office has identified risk factors leading to GBV, many of which are familiar to the fashion industry. This includes the disproportionate concentration of women in low-wage jobs in distant tiers of supply chains; imbalanced power relations; interacting forms of discrimination, such as migratory status, race, ethnicity, disability, gender and poverty; and insecure working arrangements.
This has resulted in 80% of female garment workers in Bangladesh experiencing some form of violence or harassment while on the job. In Cambodia, 28% of surveyed female garment workers stated that someone at work had forced them to sleep with them to extend a contract, fix their sewing machine or to grant a bonus. In a 2014 survey of more than 400 garment workers in Swaziland, over 70% of respondents reported witnessing verbal and physical abuse in their workplace by supervisors. In Indonesia, 71% of garment workers had experienced gender-based violence and harassment.
Gender-based violence is rife and, unless brands like H&M take immediate measures to end the culture of gender-based violence and harassment in their supply chain, it will only get worse.
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